Alice Agnes Shaul Cumbow

1894, Wood Lake, Nebraska ‒ 1994, Valentine, Nebraska

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Living for 100 years in Cherry County, Nebraska, Alice Cumbow painted images of her world with such clarity and simplicity that, for many people familiar with her artwork, she and her paintings are synonymous with the beauty and history of the Sandhills. Without affectation or embellishment, she depicted real people, real landscapes, and real coloration ‒ and oh yes, when you look at her skies, those clouds. Her style has been described as ‘folk art’ and, because of that description, she has been referred to as Nebraska’s Grandma Moses. Parallels between these women is also found in more than just painting style, as both lived for a century in circumstances where domestic chores demanded a big part of their energy, especially after they married and had children.

Because of her family demands, Alice did not find much time to devote to painting until she was in her mid-30s. When she did, she created images that many local people admired. Likely these reactions pleased her, but her motives were much more love of subject matter and process than ego. In addition to painting, she also did pen and ink drawings and photography. Alice, before marriage, also composed music, and one of her songs, The Titanic, was published under her maiden name, Alice Shaul.

Alice, the second oldest of eight children of Charles and Anna Shaul, was raised on the family homestead at Wood Lake, Nebraska, east of Valentine. In 1910 when she was 16, she moved with her family to Valentine, the county seat of Cherry County, where her father worked as a railroad foreman. Alice lived the remainder of her life in that town. One time when someone posed the question: “Have you ever thought about leaving the Sandhills?,” she responded quickly, “Oh heavens no, I would never leave the Sandhills.”

In 1917 at age 23, she married Frederick Anderson Cumbow, who was 12 years older, and the couple had two daughters and a son. They lived at 813 West 3rd Street. Fred worked as a real estate agent, and, according to grandson Bill Cumbow, was also active in Valentine city politics, holding many positions including City and County Clerk. Alice was a homemaker and caregiver for her mother who lived to 91, and her father who lived to 97. In 1932 when in her late 30s, she began to seriously focus on her painting, although she still had responsibilities with her children: Pauline, William, and Dorothy, then ages 13, 10, and 6.

Living a long distance from academic art schools, she set about teaching herself from art books and mail-order art materials. She depicted subjects with which she was familiar, and painted in a realist style using rich colors, paying careful attention to details. In addition to landscapes, her subjects were Native Americans, historical narratives, and frontier pioneer genre. She said her first painting was Chief Red Cloud’s Camp, and it became her entry at the Six States Art Exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.

In the 1940s, she received special encouragement as a four-time winner of the Omaha World-Herald Sketch Contest. Further public recognition came with additional exhibitions at Joslyn and Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Some years later, in 1976, the Sheldon, which acquired her paintings Flow and Autumn Reflection, hosted a solo exhibition of her work. A reviewer for the Lincoln Star described her work as “clear, precise, yet never static. The billowed thunderheads seem faintly mobile, the trees and grass fragrant, and the water cool.” (June 10, 1976) Quoted as saying: “I never dreamed of anything like this,” she was very proud and told people that this event was a highlight of her life.

She was also featured in the “Grand Generation” series produced by the Nebraska Educational Television Network (1985-1988). In 1981, Alice was one of 13 women artists chosen for the exhibition Wellsprings of America: A Festival of Women’s Art in Omaha. Other exhibition venues included Little Gallery at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln; Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Missouri; and The Art Institute of Chicago. The Nebraska Assembly of Community Art Councils used one of her images for the poster The Arts in Nebraska – a distinct honor. In 2003, her artwork was included in the Museum of Nebraska Art’s exhibition titled Women Artists from The MONA Collection, held at the Museum in Kearney.

Fred Cumbow died in 1953, and Alice lived another 41 years as a widow. She moved from the family home and lived for some years on Valentine’s Main Street where, over the Redfront Mercantile Store, she had an apartment with a large skylight. When she was 89, she moved in with her sister for several years and finally to a nursing home, where she died in 1994.

According to her granddaughter, Susan Cumbow Kerr, Alice was generous to her family including paying for art lessons for Susan, who described her grandmother as “kindly, very humble, modest, prim and proper, with a social world of mostly church and family” which included 10 grandchildren. Although she never learned to drive, she was independent. She supported herself financially with Social Security and some income from her paintings which, according to the painting log she kept, totaled 560. In 1965, she was a founder of the Sand Painters Art Guild of Valentine, and this involvement provided her with many friends and exhibition and sales opportunities.

Bill Cumbow, Alice’s grandson, recalled spending many nights at his grandmother Alice’s place because it was “his favorite place to go.” A recurring image for him was of Alice sitting at her easel with brush raised while he sat and dipped her homemade cookies into coffee with milk. He said she used mostly oil and pastel and not much watercolor and that “she loved clouds” and, when out of doors, “she was usually looking at the sky….She painted everything from clouds, sand, Indians, just scenery, rivers, etc.” He also told of a resentment she often mentioned, which went back to her youth when she was doing a painting at her sister’s home. The sister’s mother-in-law looked at the work and told Alice: “you will never be a good artist.”

Many years later, on her 98th birthday, Alice said: “I don’t think you could choose anything else that would give you as much pleasure as art.”

The Museum of Nebraska Art has three work by Alice Cumbow.

Sources:

Ancestry.com, Mar. 2014

Cumbow, Bill, Personal Interview, Valentine, Nebraska, May 21, 2015. Bill Cumbow is the grandson of Alice Cumbow.

Falk, Peter Hastings, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art, Volume I, Print

Kerr, Susan, Personal Interview, Valentine, Nebraska, May 21, 2015. Susan Kerr is the granddaughter of Alice Cumbow.

Museum of Nebraska Art files: Find A Grave obituary; Women Artists from the MONA Collection Exhibition Guide, 2003, Print; Women Artists from the MONA Collection, unpublished catalogue, 2003, Print

Sand Painters Art Guild, scrapbooks, Courtesy of Patricia Schemmer

Schemmer, Patricia, Email to Lonnie Dunbier, Jun. 15, 2015. Founding date of Sand Painters Art Guild.

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project:

Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945