Working in oil and watercolor, New Hope artist Paul Rickert paints luminous scenes of the Maine coast and moody streetscapes of Chestnut Hill, where he once lived. He is fascinated by the mysteries of fog and hidden narratives beneath "the subtle drone of ordinary life."
But 44 years ago, when he was 19, Rickert's subject matter was altogether different - soldiers under fire rushing for a chopper, a soldier helping evacuate a wounded comrade, a soldier on a gurney linked to life by an IV line.
Rickert was a combat artist in Vietnam, one of dozens assigned by the Army to create a visual record of that long, inglorious war. His paintings and drawings are among more than 250 works of art in a magnificent new exhibition at the National Constitution Center, "Art of the American Soldier," opening Friday and continuing through Jan. 11.
Drawn from the Army's rarely seen collection of nearly 16,000 paintings, watercolors, drawings, and cartoons, the show is an extraordinary sampling of the artistic impressions of soldiers from World War I, when the Army first deployed artists, to the present day, when it employs an official artist in residence.
"There's something so startling - that for 100 years the Army has been sending soldiers to the front lines to do art, and in a way that seems very unmilitary - basically letting them do whatever they feel artistically moved to do," says David Eisner, president and CEO of the Constitution Center. The exhibition "presents the human face of war in a way only an artist can, and in a way no newsreel or photograph could hope to."
The Army's art collection represents the work of about 1,300 artists, mostly soldiers.
"It's an amazing collection, and not a lot of people know it's here," says Sarah Forgey, its curator. The current exhibition is "a good opportunity to see a wide variety of what we have. This many pieces haven't been seen in one place in quite some time."
The art is representational and realistic, and organized thematically rather than chronologically - a soldier's life, duty, sacrifice. Soldiers exploring foreign lands, doing laundry, bathing, savoring mail, praying, playing baseball. Or overrunning enemy positions, scrambling for cover, rescuing comrades, dying in battle.
The section titled "The American Soldier" is a wall of moving, evocative portraits, including one by Rickert.
"Look at his eyes - he's been through it," the artist said during a preview tour Tuesday. "Too much combat and not enough sleep, the awful fatigue of war."
Many of the paintings are accompanied by video touch screens featuring interviews with artists. An iPod tour amplifies the experience with oral histories. In a repeating "pop-up" theater piece, a live actor tells the story of a soldier who, like Rickert, is drafted and joins the Vietnam art team. To complement the exhibition, the center has launched an online gallery where soldiers past and present can share renderings of their experiences.
The Constitution Center had contemplated an exhibition about the military, Eisner says, spurred both by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by war's changing nature in an age of terrorism. It was a CBS-TV Sunday Morning segment in November about the Army's art treasures that sparked this show - assembled with astonishing swiftness for such an ambitious undertaking.
"We dialogue with a lot of ghosts at the Constitution Center," says Stephanie Reyer, director of exhibitions. "To be able to deal with living, breathing history was a refreshing change and pleasant privilege."
It was almost a century ago that the Army institutionalized the commissioning of artists to document soldiers' lives. Since then, it has dispatched eight to cover World War I, 42 in World War II, 57 during the Vietnam War, four in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and three in U.S. military operations during the last decade.
Rickert was a member of the first Vietnam team. On Tuesday he was joined by three former comrades, including John Wehrle, 68, of Richmond, Calif., the lieutenant who led the team.
"In a sense, we wrote the rules, because nobody knew what we were supposed to be doing," Wehrle said. "We made it up as we went along. We were free to follow our own instincts. To the Army's credit . . . they didn't want propaganda. They let us express our own point of view."
If the Army shunned propaganda, so too did most of the artists. Rickert's close friend Roger Blum, now 69, of Stillwater, Minn., did a painting that shows a Vietnamese woman and her two naked children fleeing the flaming ruins of their home - a lurid conflagration, incandescent yellows and oranges that radiate heat, humiliation, and horror.
"It's a strong statement," Blum acknowledged - but it wasn't intended as an antiwar image. "It's the cost of war," he said, an action that was "pretty drastic" but justifiable: The husbands of such women were hiding in caves, picking off U.S. troops. "I support the military and believe we need to fight to protect our freedoms," Blum said.
The goal of most of these soldier artists is stated eloquently by Master Sgt. Martin Cervantez, the Army's current artist in residence: "When I was first assigned here and they said, 'OK, you have carte blanche to go paint your point of view for history,' it took me a couple of months to digest that and try to develop my idea of what the point of view should be, which came down to three things: That's what it looked like, that's what I did, and that's where I was."
One of the questions most often asked of Forgey, the collection's curator, is: Why does the Army still use artists?
Her response: While a photo can capture a moment accurately, a painter can use artistic license to manipulate details - moving something on the periphery to the foreground, combining something that happened yesterday with something that happened today - to enhance drama and convey the entire emotional spirit of an event.
If the exhibition has a reluctant star, it's Rickert. A photo of him at 19, clean-cut and sharp-eyed, greets visitors at the outset, and his drawing of his buddy Blum surrounded by curious Vietnamese children is the exhibition's final, summarizing image.
But Rickert, thoughtful and wry, is humble to the point of embarrassment about his role as a combat artist.
"I didn't fight the war. I was just over there observing it. I approached it like an assignment and did it as objectively as possible," he says.
He grew up in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, the son and grandson of artists. After a semester at Temple University, he dropped out and began honing his talent through the Famous Artists School correspondence course, under the tutelage of his illustrator father.
Drafted, he registered as a conscientious objector and was sent to train as a medic at Fort Sam Houston, where his artistic skill impressed his superiors. Applying for the combat art team, he was virtually guaranteed a place.
In 1966, he was sent to Vietnam for two months and traveled widely, recording what he witnessed in his sketchbook. Then, for two months in Hawaii, he refined his sketches and impressions into fully realized paintings, eight in all, as well as many drawings and watercolors.
Rickert calls the whole experience "a parenthesis" in his career. "It was strange," he says. "I painted my way through the war."
"I'm ambivalent about it. It's something I didn't want to do. For me it was more a survival thing, not a noble venture. . . . I don't want to advertise it as part of my legacy."
Ten years ago, he skipped a reunion of his team. But this summer, he interrupted his precious painting time in Maine to participate in the exhibition.
"I just thought it was important and wanted to show up for the other guys," he said. "I realize now that it's part of history, and that puts it in a different light.
"It's important not because I went over there or the war was a success - I don't think it was - but because a group of artists . . . tried to show what a soldier goes through.
"In that sense, it was a great program, and in that sense, I'm very proud to have been part of it."