By Joe LacdanApril 11, 2019
FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- A dim, 120,000-square-foot vault within Fort Belvoir houses a vast collection of art, pieces of Soldiers' lives and exploits on the battlefield. The pieces have been stacked on thin metal walls featuring scenes from both World Wars, Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq invasion.
Located in the bowels of Belvoir's Army Museum Support Center, the pieces contained here capture candid moments often unseen by the public eye -- embers of war that would otherwise remain lost in history.
Subjects could be a Soldier stopping to rest after a long day of marching through rough terrain. Another could show a Soldier in a poignant moment as the grief over losing a fallen comrade sinks in.
Some pieces depict startling battle scenes. Others portray raw human emotion such as "The Man without a Gun," an oil painting created by Lawrence Beall Smith, which shows a young Army medic during World War II. The piece exhibits the panic and fear of a non-combatant Soldier who cannot defend himself with a firearm. The Army's Center of Military History hosts the 16,000-piece collection whose subjects date as far back as the Revolutionary War.
Many of the works are inherently personal, with Soldiers -- Army artists -- documenting fellow Soldiers. And more often than not, the artists have experienced the trauma and emotions of their subjects firsthand.
Though, the subject matter of the works often extends beyond battlefield turmoil.
"Art is very relatable. A lot of times we are able to kind of humanize the art," said Master Sgt. Juan Munoz, the Army's current artist-in-residence. "We're not just capturing the cool Soldier repelling from the helicopter. We're also capturing the Soldier missing his family. We're capturing the Soldier being hot and tired and sleepy. So we're capturing all these common things as a Soldier we go through each and every single day."
Soldiers from all career fields now have the opportunity to apply for the unique position that allows a Soldier to empathize with his artistic subjects on the museum support center's staff.
"It is Soldiers writing their own history in creating these artworks," said Sarah Forgey, chief art curator for the U.S. Army museums. "They bring a little extra 'something' to it that you can't create in a studio as somebody who hasn't experienced it firsthand."
Artists could be tasked to create art of a career field such has military dog handlers or to document training of Special Forces units.
But the subject matter and creative parameters are left to the creators. Museum administrators give Army artists nearly full creative freedom.
"The artist is first and foremost a Soldier," Forgey said. "He or she is documenting their own experience."
One night while on assignment in the Florida Keys, Munoz observed a tired Soldier sitting on a curbside. The Soldier looked visibly exhausted from 12 hours of delivering food and supplies to nearby residents, whose lives were ravaged by the devastation of Hurricane Irma in the late summer of 2017.
The Soldier pulled out his phone and began to use the FaceTime app to talk to his wife.
"I saw him there and the expression on his face, to be able to reconnect with his wife," said Munoz, who has served as an Army artist for three years. "What it immediately reminded me of was a piece of art that we already have in the collection of a Soldier back in (the Korea War) where he received a letter and he had the same expression -- the same emotion."
The art resonates across generations, even as technology changes. Munoz said that something as simple as a painting of pulling guard duty could connect a Soldier of today to a troop who served during Desert Storm or in Vietnam.
One of Munoz's favorite pieces features a junior Soldier serving as a security guard in Baghdad.
"It shows the timelessness of emotion that our Soldiers portray throughout the history of our Army," Munoz said.
The program originally began during World War I with eight Soldiers chosen as artists. During World War II the Army had 43 Soldier artists and during the Vietnam War the service formed nine teams of creators. The service eventually narrowed the number to one artist beginning in 1993 with occasional Soldiers serving as apprentices to the primary artist.
In his tenure as the artist-in-residence, Munoz has contributed 24 artistic creations to the collection stored within the climate-controlled vault. Across the Army's 47 museums worldwide, another 16,000 have been stored or displayed.
Eventually, more than 100 pieces of art will appear in the opening exhibit of the Army's new 185,000-square-foot National Museum, a $250 million project that broke ground at Belvoir in September 2016.
Army artists contributed the vast majority of the pieces in the collection, although the museum welcomes contributions from Soldiers who create their own art, as well as civilian artists who have traveled with military units during historical campaigns.
Munoz deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq to create his artistic works and also traveled to disaster areas after Hurricanes Irma and Maria documenting Soldiers during the relief efforts. Sgt. 1st Class Amy Brown, who served as the resident artist before Munoz, deployed to document Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts in the Caribbean.
In his most recent assignment, the former drill sergeant embedded himself with Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq. There he noticed a young Soldier, Spc. Jose Perez, perched atop a watchtower in Baghdad. Inspired by the Soldier's dedication, Munoz crafted a pen and ink rendering of Perez on a wooden panel.
Munoz captures these moments either by taking a still photograph he will later pore over in his studio. Or, he will roughly sketch the piece at the same location.
Two-dimensional art mostly make up the 16,000-piece collection inside the warehouse that also includes commissioned and contributed works.
Munoz's pieces could be documenting ordinary or routine moments to Soldiers. But they could mark milestones in the Army's history.
Munoz has served as the Army artist at a pivotal time, during the Army's massive modernization overhaul. The next Army artist can look forward to possibly documenting new milestones.
Interested Soldiers in the ranks of staff sergeant to master sergeant can apply at the Center of Military History website: https://history.army.mil/museums/armyArtists/apply.html.
"It's a very unique and a very rewarding position," Munoz said. "Your art will become a part of the history of our Army. And overall, you'll get to see our Army from a whole different perspective."