Belisario Ramon Contreras Jr.
PFC in 603rd Engineer Camouflage Bn : Co C
Born 1916 in Chile, Died 1990
Other residence(s): Washington, DC; NM
United States Army, European Theatre of Operations
College education after the war: American Univ.
Belisario Contreras was born in Valparaiso, Chile on June 28, 1916. His father was a Chilean musician (born in Spain) who enlisted in the US Navy in Valparaiso prior to World War I, served in World War I, and then was assigned to the Navy Band in Charleston, SC. In 1920, Belisario and his mother came to the US from Chile--first to Charleston, and later to Washington, DC.
Belisario registered for the draft on October 16, 1940; his registration says that he was living in DC with his parents and working for the Hecht Co., a department store chain. He married Helen Marie Slingland on September 22, 1941 and enlisted on June 3, 1942.
He served overseas with the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. His fellow Ghost Army soldiers admired his work with pen and ink; in The Ghost Army of World War II Rick Beyer quotes Ned Harris: "He was a master at the art of taking lines, putting them together, and making visual sense out of them." Several of his drawings are included in the book.
In 1945, Ghost Army soldier Keith Williams did an etching of his fellow soldier at work on his own drawing entitled "To My Friend Belisario, Who Should Have Known Better."
In a 1944 letter to his wife, fellow Ghost Army soldier Arthur Singer reported on some of the artists in the 603rd: "I've seen a lot of work that Contreras, Sihvonen, and Boccia have done—they are three of the best artists in the place and do amazingly sensitive work."
Belisario was discharged from the Army on September 22, 1945. He and his growing family—he and Marie would have three daughters—remained in Washington DC. His father had retired from the Navy before the war but continued to work at the Navy Yard during the war years.
He pursued higher education under the GI Bill, graduating from American University with a BA in 1954, and receiving a PhD in history from the same institution in 1967.
He pursued his own art throughout the post-war years, showing his work at galleries in the DC area and later in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, NM. The Chevy Chase Art Gallery says of his work: "While contemporary in style, his paintings are strong in impressionistic feeling." In contrast to his subdued wartime work, his later paintings are quite colorful.
He also worked for the US State Department for 20 years; in the early 1970s he was Chief of Audiovisual Arts for AID (Agency for International Development). He also taught art history at American University.
His PhD thesis had been entitled "The New Deal Treasury Department Art Programs and the American Artist, 1933-1943." In 1983 he turned that into a book entitled Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art.
Belisario and Marie had divorced in 1968; he would later marry again. Later in life it appears that he lived part of the year in Washington and part of the year in New Mexico. In a recent tweet, his granddaughter, Maya Contreras, recalled visiting him as a child. "I've been going to Washington, DC since I was six because of my grandfather, Belisario. He would take me to Arlington Cemetery where his father was buried, and he introduced me to members of Congress. He taught me about policy, how it can hurt or help people."
Thinking of the music and art careers of her grandfather and father, and also her own career as a writer, actress, and advocate (with an advanced degree in arts and public policy), Maya tweeted on Veteran's Day, 2020, "Art and Service is my family's legacy."
Belisario died on March 31, 1990. In 2014, his widow Marta donated 28 of his wartime drawings (accompanied by photos and documents) to the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University. Belisario's papers from his New Deal work are housed at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian.
1920 shipboard manifest Chile to US
1924 Washington DC city directory
1927 Washington DC city directory
1940 draft card
1941 marriage record
1944 (November 29) letter from Arthur Singer to his wife; GALP Archives
1954 article in Washington DC Evening Star re his BA from American University
1957 father's Find a Grave record
1968 divorce record
1972 US Dept of State Newsletter
1980 art exhibit article in Albuquerque Journal (NM)
1983 art exhibit article in Albuquerque Journal (NM)
1990 Social Security death record
1990 VA death record
2019-2021, a variety of tweets from his granddaughter, Maya Contreras, about her grandfather and great-grandfather
Chevy Chase Art Gallery - brief bio and images of paintings
Ghost Army website - info about donation of his wartime art to Brown Univ.