Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist


Chicago – Life was very different for women fifty years ago.  My mother never learned how to drive, she had no money of her own and when my father died, she had no idea how to write a check.  My life at twenty was not much different – I only knew what I observed and the norm was that many women had very few choices, even independent thought was whispered and not spoken aloud.  I didn’t like the way my father treated my mother – in our house, speaking one’s mind was heresy; standing up for oneself was treason!

 My entire view of life was skewed by my family history.  I was completely unformed.   I  had worked in Chicago for Holiday Magazine in the Advertising Department.  At the same time Hugh Hefner was starting Playboy and fundamentally changed the culture with his magazine and Chicago Playboy Club. In spite of the skinny waists, big boobs and bunny tails becoming the new sexualized ideal of womanhood, all I wanted was to be an artist.    I went to night school at the Chicago Art Institute.   Most of my lunch hours and weekends were spent at the museum studying paintings until I almost knew the brushstrokes by heart!  Several stand out – a painting of a rainy Paris street by Caillebotte, another called “A Donor and Five Saints” by Mantegna….Monets, Manets, Goya, Degas, Eakins; very few women of note – Artemesia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, Cecelia Beaux.

Sometime in 1959 I applied for entrance to the School of the Chicago Art Institute and made a great effort to prepare my portfolio.  Out of hundreds of applicants samples of my work were accepted and I was offered a place as a first year student.  Scholarships were only available to second year students.  I had been living with my parents, often helping them out with my salary from my job at Curtis.  When the acceptance letter arrived, I showed it to my father and asked if I could forego my monthly rent payment to him for one year.  I promised to work for a scholarship the following year.  He stood over me and said “No daughter of mine will be an artist!”  I pleaded, cajoled, but he stood firm. My brother had gone off to college – girls were expected to stay home and care for their parents – it was cultural. 

Six months later I went on a blind date with a tall, handsome Notre Dame student – his first impression was that I looked like Kim Novak!  Quite a shallow response to our meeting I thought! He was interesting and funny and a major in early English Literature.  I listened intently to his stories of academia, football games  – he read me poetry and told me the story of Beowulf – I was enchanted.  That was 58 years ago.  The war in Viet Nam was raging and many beautiful young men would never come home from those jungles.  The draft board was just waiting for him to graduate from college.  My hopes of finding my way in the art world had been dashed – I was nineteen in the August of 1960 when we married – twenty the following month.

We were married in the little chapel on the campus of Notre Dame – the founder of the college was buried under the floor of the little church. I am certain he still lies buried there along with some of my hopes and dreams! 

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