EDITOR'S NOTE: In recognition of Canada's 150th birthday The Herald is running local historical stories from our archives. The following feature was first published in February 2007.
Eva Cleland was born Eva Sheere, in Moosmin, Sask. in 1901.
She grew up in Moosmin and always called it an artsy town. Music was always a part of her life, having been born into a family of singers and musicians and even violin makers. After school she attained her teaching degree from the University of Saskatchewan, then taught in one-room school houses in small towns.
In 1922, Eva took time away from teaching to head up a travelling entertainment show as a Chautauqua Girl. A chautauqua show was a more refined version of vaudeville and gave smaller communities a glimpse into the world of classical music, dance, oration and poetry.
She served as superintendent of the show, which brought together vocalists and lecturers to perform in a variety of cities and towns from province to province.
The group’s transient way of life saw Eva come in contact with many people, meeting with businessmen, asking them for up-front money to bring the road show to their town.
In 1927 she made her way to British Columbia and landed in Penticton to meet with some local businessmen about bringing the road show here. It was at this juncture she would meet the man who would eventually become her husband, Hugh Cleland. Although at first they did not spend a lot of time together, the pair kept in touch after her departure from Penticton.
That same year Eva left the travelling road show and made her way to New York City, where her passion for music and culture got her a job with the National Women’s Music League. Her job entailed booking concerts for upcoming vocalists and musicians for the entire state of New York.
In April of 1935, Hugh Cleland made the trek to New York City and Eva Sheere became Eva Cleland.
Following her marriage, Eva returned to the Okanagan and began her career as its first professional arts administrator. It was her belief the residents of the B.C. Interior should have access to a wide range of arts activities that drove her to push for programs in the arts.
Eva became a regular fixture in the arts and culture scene in the community, and then began to spread her passion for music and arts, heading north to Kelowna to help organize an Okanagan Valley Music Festival. The festival involved the communities of Vernon, Kelowna, and Penticton.
Eva Cleland was instrumental in creating the Okanagan Valley Music Festival, a place for musicians and choirs from the entire Okanagan Valley to perform.
Daughter, Marilyn Barnay, said in a 2007 interview that her mother had a knack for setting the wheels in motion when it came to the arts.
“Mom was good at making the contacts to get things going and encouraging people to get involved in projects,” said Barnay who added both of her parents were heavily involved in several promoting and encouraging Penticton’s art culture.
Former Penticton city councillor Rory McIvor, another person who was close to Eva, said he was touched by her constant drive to bring the arts to Penticton.
“I moved here in 1972 and shortly after that I met Eva and almost immediately she convinced me to join in her quest for arts and culture,” said McIvor. “I don’t even consider myself an artsy person, but she just had the ability to rally people around a project or an idea she had.”
McIvor said the husband and wife team of the Clelands were passionate about bringing arts and culture to the community and were especially interested in promoting and supporting artists throughout the South Okanagan.
Quiet mentors, McIvor said it wasn’t uncommon for Hugh and Eva to lend financial support to artists out of their own pockets.
In 1951, the Massey Report was seen as important in the cultural history of Canada because it advocated federal government support for a wide range of cultural activities and proposed the establishment of a Canada Council for the Encouragement of the Arts, Letters, Humanities and Social Sciences. This led Eva to participate in the B.C. Arts Resource Conferences at UBC, after which she pursued an arts policy for all of B.C.
According to Barnay, her mother was involved in many projects in the community but some of her most notable achievements included founding the Okanagan Summer School of the Arts in 1959.
The school helped create a focal point for the development of the arts and music in Penticton and the South Okanagan.
Through the Okanagan Summer School of Arts came formation of the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, which began as a night school program, but gradually became a touring symphony that performed throughout the Interior.
Around the same time, Eva started the Community Arts Council. After attending a meeting of the Canadian Arts Council, she felt this should become an umbrella organization. Throughout the Interior, many towns were creating their own community arts councils. In 1970, the Okanagan Mainline Regional Arts Council was conceived and it promoted and encouraged arts and culture through the Okanagan.
By 1976, the Okanagan Image was commissioned. This was a travelling visual and performing arts event which commissioned works and visited many parts of the province.
Barnay said both her parents loved working in and for the community.
“They worked to bring art and culture for the good of all of us,” said Barnay. “She wanted to make sure we all got a little music and culture.”
For many years, Eva had been looking to get the Penticton Foundation started, said Barnay, noting it would provide grants to support young artists.
According to McIvor, Eva’s biggest contribution was her idea to explore a fine arts community. McIvor had been asked by Eva to be a part of a group who would brainstorm the idea of a fine arts community and then work at moving the plan into action.
However, after several meetings, Eva came to the realization the project was much bigger than she had anticipated, causing her to shift her efforts towards forming an arts foundation in the city. While initially thought of as being a foundation for Penticton only, it was felt there was a need for a foundation’s presence throughout the South Okanagan.
McIvor said after Eva analyzed what had to be done to get it started, she decided to step aside because it was bigger than what she had originally thought was needed.
“Although the foundation wasn’t Eva’s original idea, she really initiated the idea and laid the groundwork for the foundation to be created,” he said.
“Eva was the iron fist behind the project, it was impossible to say no to her.”
In 1988, Eva received Canada’s most prestigious arts award, the Diplome d’honneur. This award is an expression of esteem from artists to those who have made outstanding contributions to the encouragement of the arts in Canada during an extended period of time.
Eva was recognized for discovering and developing art and culture in a growing community.
The Clelands were supporters of a variety of organizations that brought a lot of art and culture not only to Penticton but also to the entire South Okanagan.
McIvor said Eva would often gather people at her home to brainstorm as a way to try to come up with fresh ideas to expand the cultural life of Penticton, and she was always scouring the community for up-and-coming artists.
“She was an absolutely charming person and did not have a mean bone in her body,” said McIvor.
Outside of the arts, Eva also helped launch the Glengarry Figure Skating Club. Hugh was the treaturer for the War Memorial Arena and daughter Marylin remembers him working long hours to achieve that goal.
"Mom and Dad really worked on everything together and Dad was already very involved in various projects around town before 1935 when they married," Marylin said.
On July 24, 1995, the city honoured Eva Cleland — who was in ill health at the time — by naming the community centre theatre the Cleland Community Theatre.
It was only fitting that a lady whose dedication and commitment to the development of the arts in the Penticton area would be remembered in a building bearing her name.
Eva died in 1996 — predeceased by her husband in 1991 — but the theatre remains as a beacon to all those who share her passion for the arts.