By Abigail Koerner
On a Thursday afternoon, clad in an off the shoulder denim dress and dangly yellow earrings, Cleanna told the story of her life, artistic foundations, and vision for her future.
Cleanna is a Senior in Adams House studying VES. When she was applying to colleges, her top pick school was not Harvard, but rather the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Her plan to follow her father’s footsteps and attend MBI were interrupted when she was rejected. Instead, Cleanna came to Harvard intending to study Government. When she came to Cambridge, she joined what she referred to as a Christian “cult of personality”. The religious group she joined did not allow members to date outside of the church, required members to attend church events pretty much every day of the week, and referred to other Christians as “misled Christians.” Cleanna eventually found it hard to relate to the group and noted that although people part of this particular church group often do genuinely kind things, those same actions are also “unintentionally very manipulative”.
When she took Hebrew Bible her sophomore year of college, Cleanna became “entirely disillusioned with organized religion.” In taking the course, Cleanna realized “how many discrepancies there are in authorship [of the bible], especially in the old testament.” And so, Cleanna, having abandoned old dreams of going to the Moody Bible Institute and adopting new ideas about Christianity, left the church.
Cleanna’s religious upbringing impacted her early development as an artist. She says she was often hesitant to look to historical artists for inspiration and initially avoided “images/writings around drug users, drag queens, and sexual activity,” or anything that might rock her conservative boat. She thinks if she had not been so religious, she would have been drawn to artists like “Mapplethorpe, his whole funky world, and dilemmas it can present.”
As a result, her artwork was always very “questioning in nature.” Even today, a lot of her work is centered around exploring the female body, modesty, and temptation—including a series of paintings paralleling the female body with fruit.
Her favorite work of late was a performance piece she did in Berlin this past May. Inspired by Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”, Cleanna sat in the center of Bard College’s Berlin campus and let people cut of pieces of her hair until there was none. Cleanna says she loved creating this performance piece because there’s usually “No space for emotion or interaction with a lot of art” Instead, in this case, there was a “weird role reversal of the audience becoming makers and experiencers themselves.” Cleanna, the original maker, watched the people of Berlin use scissors to create art on her head.
Cleanna creates poetry, short stories, songs, personal essays blended with research, paintings, drawings, takes photos, and wants to continue creating performance pieces in the future. After college, she perhaps wants to work as a teacher and/or live abroad. As an artist, Cleanna stands by living artistically and says an artistic lifestyle, “allows [her] to make things [she’s] scared of making or do things [she’s] scared of doing.”
On being rejected from the Moody Bible Institute and leaving the church, Cleanna says, “I got rejected, I’m here at Harvard, and now I’m gonna birth the antichrist.” But the only things Cleanna has “birthed” thus far are pieces of art that use human interaction, multimedia, and many other mediums, to interact with the world.