MADELEINE BRAND, host:

At the peak of World War II, women made up a significant part of the workforce in factories and shipyards across the U.S.

For working mothers, the federal government set up some 3,000 facilities to care for more than 100,000 children. One of the largest childcare centers was near a shipyard in Richmond, California.

As Nancy Mullane reports from Richmond, a local resident recently discovered a treasure trove of children's art from half a century ago.

NANCY MULLANE: The basement of the Richmond Historical Museum is jam-packed with artifacts. Stacks of newspapers and photos, Native American baskets and old toys fill up the space. There is so much it's easy to ignore the closed cabinet up against the back wall. And that's exactly what happened.

For more than five decades, since the end of World War II, thousands of paintings by children were left undisturbed inside the white, two-door cabinet. That was until Joe Fischer, a retired professor from U.C. Berkeley, followed a hunch and opened the doors. He was amazed at what he found.

Mr. JOE FISCHER: (Curator, "Children's Art: Childcare and the Home Front, 1943-1966," Richmond Museum of History, California): This is the largest, discrete collection of children's art anywhere in the United States - right here, Richmond California.

MULLANE: Fischer has spent hours carefully examining the paintings, mostly of trucks, planes and ships, a few of Hitler, very few of homes and families. Up in the right-hand corner of each, written in pencil by the teacher, is the child's name, their age, year and month.

Mr. FISCHER: So we can look and let's see what we got here. Age 7, Jimmy Nelson(ph) 8/09/45.

MULLANE: And the title of the painting…

Mr. FISCHER: "American Airplanes Bombing Truck, Which Caused Blaze to Reach the Tanks, Which Couldn't Get Away Fast Enough." "German Flag Being Machine-Gunned."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MULLANE: One of the hundreds of painters back then was a young, five-year-old girl named Betty Kano.

Ms. BETTY KANO (Artist): It's fun to have something important placed in front of you as a child and step into that role of being cared for and - it's a nurturing. It's a really nurturing experience to be taken care of that way in terms of their soul.

MULLANE: The teachers of the childcare centers, Kano says, paid attention to the details. There were milk cartons full of vibrant, colorful paints. Smocks were laid out, and the easels were…

Ms. KANO: Set up perpendicular to the windows so that the light was exactly right. And I remember those milk cartons of paint and how important it was to be neat about it, because that is a sense of care and sense of value given to that surface.

MULLANE: Today, Kano is a professional abstract painter living in Berkeley. One of her paintings from 60 years ago, along with the work of other children, is now on exhibit at the Museum of Children's Art in Oakland. Museum Director Rae Holzman says she's thrilled to be part of the discovery of these paintings. Standing in the middle of the gallery, she walks up to one in particular.

Ms. RAE HOLZMAN (Public Programs Director, Museum of Children's Art, Oakland, California): This one is a picture of an airplane, and this says: eight men are inside this plane, there are six dead in the plane. Yeah.

MULLANE: Holzman says the value of these paintings is in the purity of their historical memory.

Ms. HOLZMAN: This is really, really coming from their thoughts and their heart and their hands, and it's really just - there's nothing in between them and the paper and the paint.

MULLANE: Recently, a group of five-year-olds from a nearby public school visited the exhibit. As they sat in a circle, surrounded by the paintings on the walls, a teacher at the museum talked to them about art viewing etiquette.

Unidentified Woman: Do we run?

Unidentified Children: No.

Unidentified Woman: No. Do we keep our hands to ourselves?

Unidentified Children: Yes.

Unidentified Woman: Yes. Do we use inside voices?

Unidentified Children: Yes.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, we do.

MULLANE: With the ground rules laid, the children began to do a slow bounce from one painting to another, sharing their thoughts and opinions about the art.

Unidentified Child: Oh, the monsters.

Unidentified Child #2: That's the haunted house.

Unidentified Child: Look.

Unidentified Child #3: I think that's a shooting star.

MULLANE: Back in the basement of the Richmond Historical Museum, Fischer continues to gaze at the paintings, each a discovery of a time gone by, an untold story of a war through the eyes of the children who lived it at home.

Mr. FISCHER: I regard children as remarkable cultural informants about themselves, their family, their school, the world even. But you've got to ask them. And how do they represent this? Sometimes in art.

MULLANE: The paintings, now on exhibit at the Museum of Children's Art in Oakland, will move back to the Richmond Museum of History for a special exhibit beginning in June.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

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