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The Butler Center Receives Rohwer Japanese American Internment Camp Collection

an image from the rowher japanese american internment camp collection

Rosalie Gould of McGehee has donated her remarkable collection of artwork and other materials from the World War II-era Japanese American internment camp at Rohwer to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a department of the Central Arkansas Library System. There were 10 such camps around the country, most in the western U.S. Two were in Arkansas, at Jerome and Rohwer. The collection includes several hundred paintings and other works of art produced by U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who were interned during World War II.

Appraiser Jennifer Carman describes the materials Gould has given the Butler Center as "unique among internment collections" and cites experts Franklin Odo and Delphine Hirasuna who have said it contains artwork and documents that are "truly unmatched among objects in public collections." The collection also includes a large amount of material documenting day-to-day life in the camp, which had its own school system, police department, and mayor.

Internees worked with an art teacher at the high school in the camp, Mabel "Jamie" Jamison Vogel. Many of them let her keep much of the art they created. Over the years since the war, Gould became a champion of preserving the camp—which was dismantled after the war and essentially vanished—and its story, and she and Vogel became close friends. Gould was named in Vogel's will as the recipient of the entire collection, which includes hundreds of documents and photographs dealing with the schools, the "town" government, and many of the people who lived in the camp. A particularly important feature of the collection is a set of 185 handwritten autobiographies of internees dating from 1942. The collection is also noteworthy because the camp sent several hundred men to Europe as part of the U.S. Army's famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which is said by many authorities to have been the most highly decorated American combat unit of World War II. Camp newsletters and other documents attest to the pride internees at Rohwer took in the service these men offered their country.

Works by internee art students

According to appraiser Jennifer Carman, the art is evidence of the emotional costs of the internees being what amounted to civilian prisoners of war in their own country. "For incarcerated Japanese Americans," she said, "the creation of these works was less about learning skills such as watercolor, but rather became a means of coping and survival, and of expressing the psychological and emotional experience of confinement."

David Stricklin, head of the Butler Center, said, "This collection really contains two stories. The first is the extraordinary testament it makes to the perseverance of American citizens in the face of a truly unfortunate wartime situation. It is also the story of Mrs. Gould's determination to help preserve the history of the camp, her friendship with Mrs. Vogel, her decision to keep the collection together in the many years since Mrs. Vogel's death, and the relationships she has formed with people all over the world who are interested in the collection. These include people who lived at the camp, their kids, art historians, and other scholars. We are deeply honored that she has chosen to place the documents and the art with us and look forward to sharing them with the people of Arkansas and many others."

Gould has been visited over the years by representatives of numerous universities, including the University of Tokyo, along with staff members from the Smithsonian Institution, the Japanese American National Museum, and various auction houses, to examine the materials.

"She could have sold the collection piece by piece for a considerable amount of money, but she wanted to keep it together as a tribute to the people who experienced life in the camp at Rohwer and created the art and to Jamie Vogel. She also wanted to make it available to the public, in Arkansas," said Stricklin.