Clara Marie Allen

1913, San Diego, California – 2007, San Diego, California

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Living primarily in San Diego, Clara Marie Allen spent several years in Nebraska while her husband Fred attended medical school. She was both a public school teacher and a University of Nebraska Art Department instructor, while continuing her own artwork – screen printing, book illustration, and painting. She arrived in Lincoln in 1944, and was welcomed with enthusiasm by Dwight Kirsch, Art Department Chair, who ever referred to her as ‘Clara-Marie.’ In a letter to a friend, he described her as “a peach” who “sails right into things. She teaches public school art, illustration and helps me with the morning section of Drawing 1 & 2 besides teaching night class.” (Kirsch 73)

Clara was of special interest to her colleagues because of her heady, publicly documented experience the previous year as a bomber factory worker in San Diego. She and Constance Bowman, a teaching associate, had decided to devote the summer of 1943 to the war effort and agreed they would write a daily record with Clara doing illustration sketches. Their experiences culminated in a 1944 co-authored book, Slacks and Calluses, Our Summer in a Bomber Factory, which was published by the Smithsonian Institution. Written as a unique slice of America’s war effort history, it stirred strong reactions including that of reviewer Sunny Delaney in an article headed with “You build bombers. An art teacher and an English teacher!”

Delaney described the experience of the authors: “In 1943 America’s defense industries were so desperate for workers that school teachers were asked to work in factories during summer vacation. Slacks and Calluses is the story of two women – the image of ‘dignified schoolteacher-hood’ – who went to work for Consolidated Vultee Aircraft, building bombers on the swing shift. Constance and Clara Marie traded their linen suits and ‘swooping’ hats for blue cotton factory slacks and sturdy shoes, filled out dozens of government forms, packed up their few tools in what they hoped would pass for tool boxes – ‘small lunch boxes, the unpleasant color of unripe green olives’ – and presented themselves for work. Over the next two months, they learned to use a wide range of tools, climbing in and out of B-24 Liberator bombers performing final installations – electrical wiring, seatbelt brackets, life rafts, bomb bay doors, the works. They also learned to deal with aching muscles and feet, grimy hands, lost sleep, and ‘dural termites’ – slivers of duraluminum from the aircraft walls that worked their way under the skin. Even more trying was the change in the way they were treated – because they were wearing slacks. Female sales clerks were no longer polite, while men no longer offered their seats on crowded buses yet felt free to grab or whistle at them on the street. ‘Clothes, we reflected sadly, make the woman – and some clothes make the man think that he can make the woman.’ Throughout the summer, the women kept pencils and notepads in their toolboxes, Constance noting stories and profiling her coworkers, Clara Marie making sketches. A few months later, in 1944, their memoir was first published. The resulting text sparkles with immediacy and with the women’s ebullient wit. With its first-hand look at women war workers and its behind-the-scenes look at the building of the B-24, Slacks and Calluses provides a refreshingly different angle on World War II.” A follow-up comment to the book was by Kyle E. Ciani, San Diego History Center reviewer, who wrote that after publication, both authors “found contentment with their lives” and described Clara Marie Allen as continuing “as a part-time artist for family and community-oriented events through cards and posters.”

Actually, her post-war life was a bit livelier than those words would suggest. Clara and her husband moved to Lincoln, Nebraska with their three sons, ages 9 to 14. While Fred prepared to become a medical doctor, Clara used her M.A. degree in Art earned from San Diego State College to land both public school and university teaching jobs in Nebraska. She fraternized with the University’s Art Department faculty including Dwight Kirsch, who hosted with his wife Saturday morning sketching sessions. Those attending in addition to Clara were Alice Edmiston, Clara Leland, Barbara Ross, and Freda Spaulding. These sessions were held in Lincoln’s Piedmont area at the newly built home of the Kirschs, and were described as “very popular activities relished by friends and a few faculty members….After they finished, the group would set up their work against the long bookcase/counter in the living room for critiques. There was lots of encouragement and open honest criticism laced with jokes, laughter, and general merriment.” (Kirsch 56) Kirsch described a group outing to Milford, Nebraska where they had Fred’s “mix of pecan waffles & sausages at Spielers. A shower & a cold wind spoiled our plans to picnic outdoors but didn’t stop us from going to graveyards to paint (br-r-r-!). The Allens set up their bright blue Calif. Beach umbrella for shade (when the sun came out) in the graveyard and it collapsed when the wind came up.” (Kirsch 80)

Clara was a member and exhibitor with the Nebraska Art Association’s 55th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, March 5 to April 2, 1945 at Morrill Hall and the Lincoln Artists’ Guild Tenth Annual All-State Show, October 26 to November 9, 1947 at Morrill Hall. In Omaha, she exhibited at Joslyn Art Museum, winning prizes in 1944 and 1945. In 1945, she organized the Art Department’s faculty show with Kady Faulkner, Dwight Kirsch, and Freda Stuff. When Kirsch was traveling in California a decade later in 1956, he stopped to see the Allens in San Diego. Clara had remained a close family friend of the Kirschs, and also had been an Art Department advisor to Kirsch’s niece, Jo Ann Kelly Alexander. Of this visit, Kirsch wrote: “The Allens are wonderful people, and great friends, so I am happy about being with them. Fred took me on two sightseeing drives – harbor full of warships, aircraft carriers, submarines, etc. (Kirsch 159)

In addition to the Nebraska exhibitions, Clara Marie showed work in 1946 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and at the Denver Art Museum. Her gouache painting owned by the Museum of Nebraska Art, a gift from the Lincoln Artists’ Guild, is titled Porchy and Bath, likely named for a group of cabins called Porchy and Bath in Milford owned by Joe and Gretchen Fahnestock, who modeled for the Saturday Morning Painting group.

Clara Allen died at age 94 on December 15, 2007 in San Diego.

The Museum of Nebraska Art has one work by Clara Allen.

Sources:

Ancestry.com, Feb. 2014
Bowman, Constance Reid, Slacks and Calluses: Our Summer in a Bomber Factory, Illustrated by Clara Marie Allen, Introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert, Print
Ciani, Kyle E., “Review of Slacks and Calluses, The Journal of San Diego History,” San Diego History Center, Web, Feb. 2014
Delaney, Sunny, “Review of Slacks and Calluses,” Amazon.com, Feb. 2014
Falk, Peter Hastings, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art, Volume I, Print
Gilbert, Dorothy, Editor, Who’s Who in American Art, 1940, Print
Gilbert, Dorothy, Editor, Who’s Who in American Art, 1953, Print
Kirsch, Dwight and Jo Ann Kelly Alexander, My Life in Art: The Dwight Kirsch Biography, Unpublished, Print
Walsh, Stacey, Collections Manager, Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska, Lincoln Artists’ Guild and Nebraska Art Association
Exhibition Information

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project: Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945

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Clara Marie Allen, Porchy and Bath, gouache, 1945