Alice Cleaver and her pioneering spirit
May 16, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Even though we are well into the month of May, I can’t help thinking about the relevance of April’s theme – stress awareness. I’ve had many creative outlets in my life: writing (my first love), drawing, architecture, painting and my latest endeavor – knitting. Each of these pursuits bring with them their own healing qualities. But they all provide the thrill of creating something from nothing. Admittedly I hadn’t put brush to canvas in a while, but thanks to a well-timed Michael’s coupon, I decided to dust off the old palette and make something new. It’s been so fun to document my world through paint – even if the pictures only make sense to me! The walls of my home are covered with the vibrant images I’ve made, pieces I’ve found and connected with, or calming scenes my great-grandmother has painted.
I can’t help but smile whenever I think about my great-grandma Iva. She was an extraordinary woman and I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to make memories with her. Her warmth of spirit definitely comes across in her artwork and having it displayed is a calming force in my day to day life. But there’s something extra special about great-grandma Iva’s work and it has to do with her origin story. To be specific, where she was born: the Southeast corner of Nebraska. This little section of the world is home to all manner of artistic talent, including an exceptional lady that could have been the best of buds with my great-grandma.
Without further ado, allow me to introduce you to Alice Cleaver and her pioneering spirit! It’s funny because the more I learn about Alice, the more I see parallels between her and my great-grandma (similarities that go beyond sharing a zip code): a love for adventure, not being afraid to stand out, and the constant pursuit of artistic expression. What makes this area home to so many artists? Perhaps it’s the rhythm of those gentle Nebraska hills or the way the storms roll in and show the struggle between raw power and fragile beauty – who knows! But from my view, the key ingredient for this small-town artistic mecca is an appreciation for learning. Let me know what you think in the comments, but now back to Alice’s story…
Born and raised in Falls City, Alice graduated from University of Nebraska in 1895. This was an era when men made up the majority of college campus populations. To put this in perspective, around this same time women being awarded advanced degrees was a brave, new notion. And when I say “women” I’m not talking groups that would overpower – I mean a quantity that can be counted on one hand! This was a time period where the mere act of a woman gaining more knowledge was considered revolutionary. (Can you imagine?!) Alice was well-placed in this elite group as she continued her own intellectual pursuits, first at the Chicago Art Institute, and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She was in good company – her peers included William Merritt Chase (the founding father of the iconic Parsons The New School for Design) and Cecilia Beaux (well-known in her day for stunning portrait work).
While some of her compatriots pined for the glittery opportunities that awaited them in Europe, Alice took an unexpected path: she rode the rails. While on the Santa Fe line, she captured the great American Southwest and focused on the Puebloan community. No grand salon, no famous patrons, no followers – just a woman seeking to understand her world. That’s a brave plan for any time, but considering that the act of venturing alone could ruin a woman’s reputation – it really defines Alice as a maverick. Truly a self-made woman, she sold some of her paintings to be pay for her roaming lifestyle.
Once the dust settled, Alice did make her way to Paris – the gathering place of creatives and innovators. I can only imagine how electric Paris must have been during this Belle Époque age. Overflowing with artistic influences, it was a time of great optimism. During her time abroad, Alice focused on her favorite medium: oil paint. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during these studio days as this young woman from rural America carved a path on the glowing streets of Paris. With political tensions mounting, Alice returned home – narrowly escaping the start of WWI. My initial thought was “if only the war hadn’t ripped her out of that inspiring scene,” but then I caught myself. In looking at Alice’s work, it’s easy to see she didn’t need to be in a special environment to create – she found inspiration wherever she landed. There is a gentleness to her work – an honesty – that speaks to me as it reminds me of great-grandma Iva’s giving nature. There’s something special in the quietness of Nebraska – on the open plains you can’t hide much and perhaps that’s what makes Alice Cleaver and her pioneering spirit such a powerful combination on canvas. Next time I paint I’m going to channel Alice and my inner Falls City resilience! Tell me, dear reader, who do you turn to when you get ready to create?