The painting was reportedly commissioned to cover a hole in a wall in the basement of a house in Oxford. The name of the artist, assumed to be a German soldier, is unknown.
But as one of the few relics from the prisoner of war camp at Butner during World War II, this canvas is destined to hang in a museum.
For now, the painting, showing a medley of winter scenes, sits in a storage room at the town’s Soldiers Memorial Sports Arena, which was built by the Army for Camp Butner in 1942. That’s because the Camp Butner Museum, which will tell the history of the 40,000-acre camp where the Army trained soldiers for combat, is still in the planning phases.
Still, Gail Warren – whose family has owned the 4-foot-by-5-foot painting since the early 1980s when they bought the Oxford house where the painting functioned as camouflage – is happy that eventually it will hang in a more prominent location.
“I really think it’s an important piece of history, and people should be able to see it,” said Warren, 67.
Camp Butner officially opened as an Army training camp in August 1942. There was also a hospital for wounded soldiers, and, starting in September 1943, a prison camp for captured Italians and then Germans.
The Camp Butner Society has a commitment from the town to house the museum in a small wood-frame building the Army built in 1942; it hopes to soon sign a lease with the N.C. National Guard for the lot on which the building sits.
Society members, all volunteers, have a growing collection of artifacts, photographs, letters, documents and uniforms from the training camp that they’ll use to tell its story.
But they have only a handful of items from the POW camp, said Michael Mercier of Cary, a helicopter mechanic for the Guard who has done much of the collecting. That’s in part because a federal prison complex now occupies the spot where the POW camp was located, precluding any hunt for artifacts on the ground.
In addition to the painting, the society has a one-cent ticket good for the POW canteen (“not valid if detached,” it says in Italian), and a service medal from an Italian soldier who encouraged his grandson to visit the place where he had been held prisoner, said Mayor Tom Lane.
“His grandfather had talked about how nice the people were to him and how well he was treated,” said Lane, who met the grandson and showed him around the town that grew up where Camp Butner once was.
Mercier knows of three other POW paintings, all done by a German soldier named Erhard Kamler. One, depicting the camp, is in storage at the N.C. Museum of History, while two others are owned by a man in Fuquay-Varina who worked as a contractor at the base and used Kamler as a translator to supervise the POWs. Those paintings, inspired by pictures in a book at the POW camp, show Muir Pass in California and the Alamo.
‘So, so German’
By contrast, it’s not clear exactly what the artist had in mind when he made the painting from Warren’s house, except that it wasn’t Butner. It shows people skiing, a man shoveling snow and another carrying a milk can in front of a red barn with hay spilling from the loft, all with snow-covered mountains in the distance.
“I think of a German town with the snow and skiing,” Warren said. “Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I just thought it always looked so, so German.”
Warren and her family kept the painting in various places over the years; it hung in her daughter’s room for a while, and she took it to her office at a construction company, where an employee tacked the canvas to a piece of plywood to give it more support.
The painting shows some wear and will need some restoration work, said Mercier.
“But I’m happy it’s in such good condition for having been so many places and so large and moved around,” he said.
The painting will be on loan to the Camp Butner Museum, because Warren isn’t ready to part with it. As a work of art, the painting’s monetary value may be questionable, but Warren says the couple who owned it for decades were close to her. She says she once turned down $500 for it.
“It’s worth a whole lot more to me than $500,” she said.