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  • Caylie Gnyra

Getting To Know The Neighbours: Painter Ellenor Cleland

Ellenor Cleland with her oil painting “Granny’s Teapot,” painted in 1985, won first prize in a provincial art show over three decades ago. Photo Caylie Gnyra

As a preface to this story and what I hope will become a regular series for the Vermilion Voice, I thought it might be useful to give a brief introduction of myself as the Voice’s newest writer.

I had grown up in Vermilion and have moved away and back, away and back, out into the world and returning home since I was 17. Having worked as an editor and technical writer for over a decade, I waited to find a writing job that would fit my most recent evolution. At the same time, through working with Indigenous communities on and off for 13 years, I have become increasingly sensitive to the role of elders in guiding communities and individuals, but felt that I didn’t have strong connections to elders in my own community or culture.

When sitting down with Sue Chikie, the publisher of the Voice, for the first time, I pitched the idea of “Sitting with Elders,” sharing some of the stories of seniors in our community. As I’ve gotten to know this writing position over the past two months, I’ve expanded this vision to something along the lines of “Getting to Know the Neighbours”—something that could include not only seniors but stories of the interesting people, animals, and even plants we live in the community with, and focusing on the ways we help each other, build each other up, and inspire each other. My hope is that readers will reach out to the Voice ( with contacts and ideas that we could expand on.

Even before I got a chance to formally present this in the paper, Steve Kennedy reached out to the Voice and suggested we cover Ellenor Cleland’s 60-year painting career. I got to spend an hour in Ellenor’s immaculately kept and palpably peaceful home, getting to know a bit about her professional life. Near the end, I asked how she knew Kennedy, and she told me she and her late husband had been neighbours and close friends with his parents. In fact, she tells me, when she and her husband purchased their first home—a former town hall and teacherage near Kitscoty—in 1955 for $417, Kennedy’s father sat straddled atop the roof to lift telephone wires as they moved the building. Thank you, Steven, for putting us in touch.

Ellenor was born in Grande Prairie, but the family lived in a genuine log cabin (built by her father) near a small town named Wanham, Alberta. In 1941 the family moved to Edmonton, where she lived throughout her school years and during office employment.

In 1955 she married Albert Cleland, who farmed south of Vermilion. They were both active members of the small local church and supported community events. Albert and Ellenor were blessed with three children: Rachel, Roy, and Earl.

In 1969 Cleland enrolled in a correspondence art course with Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut, USA. What began as a wintertime hobby led to her teaching oil painting for adult education classes in Vermilion and adjacent centres for a period of 20 years. Lakeland College, the Vermilion Hospital, the Town of Vermilion, and local law offices have all commissioned artworks by Cleland, some of which still hang today.

The names of some of Cleland’s students would be familiar to many Vermilion residents: namely Opal Hughes (whose husband, Dave Hughes, was mayor of the town and who the baseball field is named after), Vera Cameron, Freda Staden, Annie Kupin, Winnie Mathison-Waddell, and Florence McQuid were long-term members of the Art Club. There was one year when the Vermilion club hosted other clubs for a province-wide show. Cleland’s 1985 painting “Granny’s Teapot,” which depicts her grandmother’s silver teapot complete with a porcelain bird-shaped drip catcher, her grandfather’s teacup with moustache protector, and the tablecloth her aunt tatted by hand, won first place in a provincial art show several decades ago.

After her husband’s death in 1997, Cleland moved back to Edmonton, where she continued painting and taught in oils and watercolours. Her interest and enthusiasm continued from childhood, to being a professional who had a business agent.

She reflects warmly that she has had an exceptionally fulfilling and wonderful life, and expresses gratitude for the opportunity she had to help other women open up their talents, and in the process, become such good friends.

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