ALUMNI FEATURES • Winter 2000

By Gloria Shur Bilchik

This is a story of two sisters who are the same, yet very different—who share something basic and profound, yet have created their own niche in the artistic landscape.

Until they graduated from Washington University in the mid-'60s, twin sisters Manon and Shirley Cleary were identical in nearly every way: they looked alike; they dressed alike; they sounded alike; they thought alike. They even enrolled in identical classes in the School of Art and competed with each other for grades. Since then, though they remain emotionally and, of course, genetically entwined, their paths have diverged, and each has emerged with a distinct artistic persona.

Shirley is the outdoorsy one. Well-known as a landscape artist in western and wildlife galleries in the United States and in New Zealand, her paintings often feature fly-fishing—a sport Shirley fell in love with when she moved to Montana in 1971.

"Fly-fishing isn't just a sport, it's an emotional experience and a way of life. So much of it is about being affected by the environment around you," says Shirley, who uses gouache, a watercolor-like medium, to capture the nuances of light and water that characterize her landscapes. "The message is the joy and love of fishing in an environment that deserves to be preserved."

Her husband, Frank Cooper, often serves as her model. "He's an expert fisherman, he's convenient, and he has all the proper gear, which is an essential part of the sport," she says. A prolific artist, Shirley's work has been featured in many prestigious publications, including American Artist, Art West, Wildlife Art, and The Artist's Magazine, and is sold through more than 15 galleries. The National Arts for the Park Competition accepted six of her paintings, and in 1999 she received the Conservation Award in Communications from Trout Unlimited, a national environmental group, and was named the organization's 2001 Artist of the Year.

In contrast, Manon prefers to stay indoors in her Washington, D.C., studio. Acknowledging that she is harder to pigeonhole as an artist, she describes herself as a figurative artist, whose work wavers among realism, magic realism, and photo-realism. Her most recent solo show centered on "sexy flowers," inspired by photos shot at the Smithsonian's annual orchid exhibit. Earlier subjects have included erotic self-portraits, emotionally disturbing figure drawings, and a series of paintings of rats.

"My work has been more controversial and a tougher sell than Shirley's, so I've always had a day job," says Manon, adding that WU classmates who observed her struggle to make sorority grades her first semester might be shocked to learn that she ended up as professor of art and one-time associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of the District of Columbia. One of Washington, D.C.'s most recognized and respected artists, her record includes more than 20 solo exhibitions and more than 150 group shows. Her work can be found in public and private collections around the world, including the Brooklyn Museum; Art Institute of Chicago; the American Embassy in Lima, Peru; the National Museum of Women in the Arts; and the Kasteeve State Museum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

But both sisters' artistic and professional self-actualization took a while. During their WU days, neither Shirley nor Manon envisioned a career as a full-time studio artist. They majored in art education, a path considered acceptable by their traditional-minded parents. "We were in art school to become teachers, so we could support ourselves. Our parents didn't want us to turn into beatniks," recalls Shirley. After graduating in 1964, both taught art in St. Louis high schools for two years.

Later, they simultaneously enrolled in graduate studies at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, in Rome, Italy. "We're thankful, every day, that we went to the schools we went to in the order we attended them," says Manon. "At Washington U., we received wonderful training in the classical tradition: how to see, how to draw, the craft of making art. In graduate school, when subject matter and self-expression were the focus, we had skills that some others lacked."

After graduate school, the sisters began to discover that they had different ideas to express. "Even so, we continued to live in the same city and travel parallel paths," observes Manon. "Everything changed when Shirley moved to Montana. I felt crushed. But her leaving forced us to come to grips with our twin-hood and how freaky it had been. I did a series of drawings based on it."

But even as their lives diverged, the sisters maintained a deep respect and admiration for each other's art. "I adore Manon's work. It's exquisite. She does the most gorgeous things with color and light, and her graphite drawings are unbelievably rich and deep," says Shirley, who admits that hanging some of Manon's more controversial works—such as her Rape series or Men in Plastic Bags—in wildlife-intensive Montana galleries and homes might be problematic.

Manon is a fan of Shirley's work, too. "She's an absolute master at creating an illusion of reality," says Manon. "I admire her ability to paint exactly what she sees. And she can paint smaller than I can see with gouache. She has mastered a medium and technique that most artists wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole, let alone make it their primary mode. It's magic." Several of Shirley's works adorn the walls of Manon's apartment, which is known as a showplace for high-quality art.

Shirley and Manon agree that their success as artists has far exceeded their expectations. Manon puts it this way: "We have invented lives for ourselves that our parents couldn't have hoped for and that we never could have dreamed up. I never could have imagined what my life has turned out to be."

Recently, Manon and Shirley have been rediscovering their common ground. In 1999, Shirley spent six weeks in Washington, D.C., collaborating with Manon on a project for an exhibit, The Relationship of Body and Self, at the Cooper Street Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee. For the project, Shirley photographed Manon, who used computer graphics to manipulate the images into a finished conceptual piece. The work was awarded Best of Show.

"I think we both agree that my photos and her creativity combined successfully," says Shirley. "We've been in different worlds in terms of our art, but we really worked well together."

Staying in telephone contact two or three times a week, they've also been swapping gallery connections and encouraging each other to expand into previously unexplored artistic subject matter and new professional ventures. "We're going to enjoy crossing into each other's territory and seeing how it washes," says Manon. "We're moving together both emotionally and professionally. Our lives are coming full circle."

Gloria Shur Bilchik, A.B. '67, M.A.T. '68, is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shirley Cleary, Secret Spot. Gouache, 9 3/4" x 19 1/2."

 

 

 

Manon Cleary, Exotic Flower Series XI. Oil on canvas, 18" x 24."