Eva Cleland’s daughter Marylin Barnay (left) and president Karen Collins of the Penticton branch of the Okanagan Historical Society, who has been researching the Chautauqua Girl. Mark Brett/Western News

Okanagan’s first lady of the arts

Eva (Sheere) Cleland, Penticton’s first lady of the arts and the woman known as the city’s own Chautauqua Girl.

A touch of drama, a glimpse of faraway places and a sense of magic.

That was how Eva (Sheere) Cleland, Penticton’s first lady of the arts and the woman known as the city’s own Chautauqua Girl, described the travelling road show she helped bring to the community in the 1920’s.

Born in the little town of Moosomin, Sask. in 1901, one of five daughters of Charles and Emma Sheere, Eva was destined for greatness in the world of the arts.

While small in stature, Eva’s boundless energy and enthusiasm eventually took her to the Big Apple before marrying her Penticton husband, Eugene Hugh Cleland in Manhattan in 1935 and eventually moving to B.C.

But it was with Chautauqua Canada, which she joined at the age of 25, Eva’s career blossomed, working as a marketing agent.

Originating in Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., Chautauqua was a travelling institution which eventually made its way to Canada in 1917.

In the spring and summer months the large brown tents were set up and a festive air would envelop the city as the performers, lecturers, actors and others brought their unique talents to town for several days.

The following is an excerpt from a Penticton program for Chautauqua about one of the showcase events.

We say, without fear of successful contradiction, that Pamahasika’s Pets constitute the best company of trained birds, dogs, cats, monkeys and other animals ever presented in a single programme.

It was on one of Eva’s pre-Chautauqua visits to Penticton she met the man she would eventually marry.

“Hugh was in charge of escorting Eva around town and they eventually went on a date and went to a movie at the Empress Theatre (now the Lloyd Gallery on Front Street)” said president Karen Collins of the Penticton Branch of the Okanagan Historical Society who has been researching Eva’s life.

Eva’s daughter Marylin Barnay remembers the story her mother told her about that first date.

“She told me there was a flood at the time but the movie was still on,” said Barnay. “They had put down planks into the movie theatre and they walked across those and that was the beginning of a wonderful romance.”

After leaving Chautauqua, Eva gained even more experience in her chosen field when she was hired by the National Music League in New York City, where she worked with aspiring artists.

Moving to Penticton following her 1935 wedding, Eva wasted no time picking up where she left off.

“It really is an amazing story of this little lady who came to town and made a difference,” said Collins. “She was just a little bit of a thing but she just did so much to help people realize what they were capable of.

“I think the philosophy behind Chautauqua is what gave her 60 years of doing amazing things for arts and culture in Penticton and the entire Okanagan Valley.”

One of the first things Eva began working on was the Okanagan Music Festival what has since become the Penticton Kiwanis Music Festival.

At the time it was a tri-city affair with Penticton, Vernon and Kelowna hosting the event in alternating years.

“She was amazing, amazing. She saw the valley as one big town with three theatres,” recalled Barnay. “She got all us kids working, I remember the music festival days would start at eight in the morning and finished after midnight.

“She was always in action and very, very nice and even tempered. And very polite.”

Eva was also instrumental in the formation and continued success of a wide range of other events and organizations.

Those included the Penticton and Community Arts Council, the Okanagan Mainline Regional Arts Council which was a model for the province, the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra and the Okanagan Arm of the Community Concert Society.

Patterned somewhat after Chautauqua, was her Okanagan Image, a traveling visual and performing arts event which commissioned works and visited other parts of the province.

Also, at the provincial level, she worked on a policy for the arts.

Word of her achievements spread beyond B.C. and in June of 1988 she went to Ottawa where she received the Diplome d’honneur, Canada’s most prestigious arts award.

At the time it was written: “Eva Cleland is a pioneer in the development of the arts in Canada. Her vision, leadership and determination have been a major force in the flowering of the arts throughout the province of British Columbia.”

In July of 1995 the Penticton Community Theatre was renamed the Cleland Theatre for the Performing Arts in her honour.

Penticton’s Chautauqua Girl died in 1996 but Barnay believes her mother’s legacy will live on through Eva’s own sense of magic and that glimpse of faraway places she has left for others to share.