For the love of art: Remembering Alice Clifford

By Page H. Gifford, Correspondent

At the end of a rustic gravel driveway off of Stoneleigh Road in Palmyra is a charming old house tucked away in a grove of trees. Inside, remnants of the old house remain, from the original brick in the fireplaces to the sliding doors to the living room. Everything about the house is wonderfully antiquated.

This is just the way artist Alice Clifford liked it. It had been her haven for almost 50 years of her life. She sequestered herself in solitude, never flinching at what would appear a lonely existence to most. Rather, she embraced it. This is the way she lived her life until she passed away this year, in solitude and with her art.

Always quick-witted with a sly smile, Clifford discussed the history of the house and her late husband’s reaction at first seeing it.

“When we considered buying the house, it had been empty for 35 years and my husband said, ‘I’m not buying a dump like this,’” she recalled. Years later the house featured renovations but was filled with Clifford’s collections of art books, dolls and teddy bears. The majority of her books are related to art and art instruction. “If the house were on fire, I would grab my Artist’s Manual, Helen Van Wyk’s Mixing Colors and History of the Renaissance,” said Clifford.

Her doll collection fills three glass cabinets in the hallway upstairs. Clifford wasn’t exaggerating when she spoke of her immense doll collection that features dolls handed down to her from her grandmother and great-grandmother. There is even King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in elaborate and detailed attire. Dolls as old as 100 years or more, and even some Clifford cast herself, occupy the three enormous ceiling-to-floor shelves on the second floor.

Downstairs, she converted her dining room into an art studio and against the wall is a curio cabinet regenerated into a doll house. Clifford laughed as she described the different miniatures she collected and the offbeat stories she created to describe the display. Each shelf was divided into a room with curious characters, from a drunken old man to a medieval knight. It was clear that Clifford had fun with her collection and was always inventing something different. After saying something surprising, she would never say, “You know what I mean?” She never had to, all she did was give a sly smile and a wink and you knew exactly what she meant.

One of the founders and a longtime member of the Fluvanna Art Association (FAA), Clifford took her art seriously. Raised with art since she was a child, she learned sculpture, creating her first statue at the age of 10, as well as sketching, watercolor, pastel, graphite, pottery, and her first love – painting. She even played classical piano.

“My husband loved it when I played Clair de Lune. I always told him, ‘You don’t want to hear the way I play it,’” she said. She may have dabbled in music but she was not a weekend dabbler when it came to her art. Art was her quiet uninterrupted haven against the world.

Those that knew Clifford understood her intense passion for painting and drawing. All around her house, in hallways and various rooms, are her paintings. Postmodern impressionistic, Clifford described her work as flowing and dreamy with no hard edges. Her work was seamless; like music, it proceeded into the next phase without pause. She wallowed in the wonderful discoveries she made along her artistic journey, never afraid to challenge herself to grow and explore.

Clifford was eclectic and humorous but was candid in her appraisal of artists who never dare to take risks and experiment with new ideas in their art. Clifford would spend hours in her studio mixing all kinds of paints and other media, experimenting, reaching beyond the familiar and safe limits of her art, challenging herself and discovering new ideas. She was content with the past, rested and reflected on the present, but was restless in pursuing future ideas, intrigued with where it would lead. Her belief was that nothing was ever gained in being safe when it came to using the imagination.

In later years, as Clifford’s health took a toll and she was less able to participate in the FAA, she was made an honorable member and made an appearance at the 40th anniversary celebration of the group’s founding. She was clearly proud of being part of the visual arts in Fluvanna County. In turn, she was an inspiration to other artists, bestowing her years of experience, wisdom and knowledge to those willing to be a maverick like she was.

Clifford lived a life she was pleased with, and at the age of 88 left on her final journey, but not after looking back those few years ago, reminiscing about her life in a wistful haze of memories. She glimpsed the past, remembering her husband, her stepdaughter, Judy, and other members of her family. She had been a nurse, ridden horses, and loved her garden and life itself.

Her art will remain as a reminder of her dedication, not to perfection, but rather to searching out new ways to create and enjoy art.

“For serious artists, they should take lessons, study and get better. After all, the masters were old when they achieved their greatness,” she said. “I love art. It is my driving force. It’s always on my mind. It never ends… It never ends.”

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