From Oran to the White House

Sunday, December 28, 2008

ORAN, Mo. -- Hand-painted and specially crafted ornaments from across the country hang on the White House Christmas tree, and one of them came from Cleda Neal of Oran.

She was commissioned to paint an ornament for the tree when someone from U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's office contacted her.

"I knew nothing about how the ornaments for the tree were selected," said Neal, who owns and operates an art studio in Oran and has been a commissioned portrait artist for more than 40 years.

She said she especially loves painting flowers and still lifes. Many of her paintings have won national awards.

Neal has taught art classes at her studio for about two decades. She holds two classes a week for adults and another for 8- to 18-year-olds.

Submitted photo
Artist Cleda Neal of Oran, Mo., was chosen to paint an ornament representing Missouri for the White House Christmas tree.

Neal said she was surprised to get the call asking her to paint an ornament for the first tree. She hadn't submitted anything or entered any contests, but that's not how the ornaments are commissioned.

First lady Laura Bush asked members of Congress to select artists to decorate ornaments for the White House Christmas tree. Emerson nominated Neal to represent the 8th District in Missouri.

Neal said she isn't sure why she was selected, except that she had met Emerson and her late husband, Rep. Bill Emerson, previously. Neal had painted a portrait of Bill Emerson that hangs in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

In July, the ornaments were sent from the White House to the selected artists. The guidelines said that only those ornaments supplied by the White House would be displayed and that the ornament should reflect the American spirit of the artist's state and should complement a red, white and blue color scheme. The deadline for returning the ornament to the White House was Oct. 1. The ornaments become the property of the U.S. government and are not returned to the artist. The artists were asked to refrain from speaking to the media about the project until after Laura Bush officially announced this year's holiday theme during the first week of December.

Neal painted Missouri's state bird, the bluebird, and the state tree, the dogwood, in red white and blue colors to abide by the specifications.

Neal said in November she received a formal invitation from the first lady to attend a White House reception for participating artists and one guest Dec. 2.

"My husband, Frederick Neal, and I attended," she said. "It was memorable."

Neal has been an artist since she was 25 years old. Now 70, she still travels widely giving workshops and she still operates her art studio in Oran. She said art is fulfilling, but it is still a job.

"Just like anything else that someone does, there are days you don't want to go to work," she said.

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