Little Nellie McCalla led two distinctly different lives.  She loved running through the woods near the Nebraskan farm where she lived as much as she loved running through the fields full of cattle and horses.  She enjoyed playing football with her brothers and tackled them just as hard as they tackled her.  She also adept at climbing trees and liked swinging out over the river on the ropes tied to the upper branches.  She was a tough little tomboy who could hold her own in a fight.  But she had another side.  She had an introspective creative side that inspired her to draw... and draw... and draw (Femme Fatales).  She excelled at art in school and was so good that by the time she was 14 she had one of her watercolours exhibited at the the Joslyn Museum in Omaha (Ultra Filmfax).  Nellie only studied art in her freshman year at high while she was living in Omaha and when the family moved back to Pawnee City she felt deprived because there was no art institute there.  One of the things that she liked doing was copying the drawings in the Sheena comics that she used to read as a child.  In a 1994 interview she said that she still had an old sketchbook filled with idealistic drawings, including Sheena-like jungle girls (Prevue)  ("As a kid, I spent many hours sketching or taking pictures in my head.  Then, as a young girl, I drew women with great ease.  I copied the comic books quite a bit, even Sheena Queen of the Jungle a few years before I played her in the series." [Ultra Filmfax]) (read the full story in the Artistic Development section on the Childhood page).

Irish's physical dimensions developed very quickly and by the time she was 15 she had a 39-and-a-half inch bust.  Needless to say, boys were attracted.  One of Irish's amusing stories concerns making copies of the Vargas-girl pin-ups from her brother's Esquire magazines (see more about Alberto Vargas in the Influenced By Vargas section below).  Irish would replicate these fetching and slightly saucy images with coloured chalk on big sheets of newsprint and would trade them for fuel for her boyfriends' cars at the local gas stations in Pawnee City.  According to Irish all of the gas stations in town had Irish McCalla Vargas copies hanging in their offices (Prevue).  Little did she realise what a prominent figure Vargas was to become later in her life (see below).

As soon as Irish finished high school in mid-1947 she fled to California.  Her older brother, Bill, and one of her older sisters, were already living there.  The reasons Irish always gave for moving to California were twofold.  She wanted to escape the severe Midwestern winters and she was becoming increasingly frustrated by the limited opportunities to study art in Pawnee City (read more details of Irish's move to California on Page 1: California in the Modelling section).  As soon as she was settled Irish enrolled in the Otis Art School in Los Angeles ("I only studied there for several weeks, then I became tired of drawing shaded squares and circles, and quit.  They had me in a beginner's class even though I was painting two 12-foot murals at an expensive restaurant just down the street from the school." - see photo right) (Glamour Girls).  It is interesting that Wikipedia describes the Otis Institute of Art and Design, which was founded in 1918, as one of the principal art colleges in California.

Irish worked as a waitress for several years before getting a second job working nights at the McDonell Douglas Aircraft factory.  Irish had already won a high school beauty contest back in Nebraska and she relied on her good looks to supplement her income in California.  She was becoming involved in the beach scene at Malibu and she had also begun entering beauty contests in California (see the Influenced By Vargas section below and Page 6: Nudity in the Modelling section).  It is very easy to get distracted by Irish's stunning beauty, but the principal thing that is overlooked in the discussions of Irish's rapid rise to fame as a model is that she pursued this career, and later worked at two jobs, to fund her dominant preoccupation - art.

Irish first met Alberto Vargas, the acclaimed pin-up artist, when he was a judge for a Miss California beauty contest that she had entered as an 18-year-old.  Vargas was born Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez in Peru in 1896, so he was about 50 when he met Irish.  He was the son of a photographer who had studied art in Europe, where he became fascinated by the sensuous covers of the famous magazine, La Vie Parisienne.  He arrived in America in 1916 and his gift for portraying the female form in delicate watercolors led to work in the fashion industry and eventually he was contracted to produce film posters.  He achieved international fame during the 1940s when his patriotic pinups in Esquire magazine circulated around the globe with G.I.s.  In 1960 Hugh Hefner offered the 64-year-old Vargas a job with Playboy magazine, where he produced a new image every month for 16 years, resulting in 156 separate paintings.  He died in 1982 and the legacy he left is that the generic term "Vargas girl" is used to describe nostalgically rendered images of perfect women.

Irish did not win the Miss California contest but Vargas was so impressed with her that he asked her to pose for him, which she agreed to do because she was short of cash at the time.  Vargas has the distinction of being the only artist that Irish posed nude for (see the full story on Page 6: Nudity in the Modelling section).  "I admired Vargas." she said. "He was such a gentle person.  He treated you like you were a beautiful rose, not like you were a nude body.  He would see the highlights of skin and he taught me some things about painting, about watercolours and stuff I never tried."  Vargas seems to have warmed to Irish because of her general interest in art and her specific interest in the techniques of painting.  I think it's a pretty safe bet that he didn't have too many models wanting to know the secrets of his craft.  She said that he showed her how he painted, which she obviously found intriguing and illuminating (Femme Fatales).  The image at left shows Irish posing for Alberto Vargas for a Night and Day magazine project, several years after she first met him.

When Irish went off to Mexico for seven-and-a-half months to film the Sheena series she never ceased drawing and painting. There is a lot of down time on a movie or television set as technicians prepare all of the elements that make a successful shoot - lighting, camera angles, etc.  Irish made sure that she had all of the necessary art utensils she needed to continue sketching and painting on location.  She said that the local Indians would come and watch the crew because she was such an oddity.  They obviously hadn't seen a lot of tall blonde, scantily-clad women carrying chimpanzees around before.  Irish loved doing oil painting portraits and sketches of the local populace and she would frequently give them the pictures to keep (Femme Fatales & Ultra Filmfax ).  She also loved painting the the lush and beautiful foliage of the jungle at Las Estacas, where the Sheena series was filmed (Heroic Fantasy) (see Page 4: The Location in the Filming in Mexico section).

Irish had her very first art show under her own name when she returned to Los Angeles from Mexico.  The paintings exhibited were mostly of barns and landscapes, done from her imagination in Mexico, because she knew the (American) countryside so well.  She said that she felt certain that many people only came because she was Sheena ("People would say, 'Hey, you're really good."  But they would say it in such surprise that I thought they didn't expect me to be any good.  I could tell by their tone of voice.  It's the same kind of thing when a guy invites you out, and you're sitting there having dinner and you're talking and, all of a sudden, he says, 'You're really intelligent.'"

In 1998, when she was asked if her artwork took a back seat while she was performing, she replied that she never really stopped painting, even when her star rose.  Once she was making enough money from her art she decided to move to Malibu to be close to the artist community that lived there and became a professional artist ("I've been painting professionally close to 35 years.") (Ultra Filmfax)

After the Sheena series was cancelled Irish continued to make personal appearances dressed in the Sheena leopard-skin tunic for many years, which was her main source of income.  She also managed to acquire a few roles in some feature films (see the Films pages) and made a few guest appearances on television shows (see the Personal Appearances pages).  During all of this time Irish was also struggling to become established as an artist ("I didn't dedicate my life to the movies, and the only career I ever really wanted was that of an artist... and it took forever to it off the ground.")  Irish has said that she continued working in show business until she could support herself with her artwork.  This appears to have happened about 1963 or 1964, because In December 1963 Irish made her last ever screen appearance when she appeared in an episode of 77 Sunset Strip.

She studied with Fritz Willis, for general knowledge and for more speed, although she complained as late as 1994 that she was still a very slow painter.  She studied with Grace Harvey to improve her expertise with the palette knife and she studied with Carlo Buonora to learn the intricacies of portrait work.  Irish has always been a person with a high level of energy, a characteristic of hers that her husbands always commented on when asked about her.  Her third husband dubbed her "Miss Perpetual Motion" (Black & Feret).  From about 1960 onwards Irish poured most of that considerable supply of energy into her art.

In 1958 Irish married her second husband, actor Patrick Horgan (see Page 3: Those Three Husbands in the Final Years section for more info).  One fortunate consequence of the marriage, for Irish, was that the couple were forced to move to Manhattan where the best theatrical roles were available.  The couple lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village and Irish loved to roam the streets looking for art and book stores.  She also had a strong love of history.  However, she mostly benefited from the opportunity to visit the glorious museums of the Big Apple - the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, not to mention an abundance of smaller galleries spread across that rich and vibrant city.

Irish's particular specialties were Western themes and children.  She had established herself as a successful artist with works in watercolours, oils, charcoal and pastels.  In 1978 she entered into a partnership with one of her sisters and began publishing her own prints and limited edition collector's plates from her pastel drawings.  Among the first she produced were Feeding the Neighbors Pony (above right - top) and Cowboys and Indians.  This specialty of producing collector plates led to her becoming a member of the Women Artists of the American West.  In 1984 Irish was given a featured profile in Collectibles Illustrated magazine.  That article mentioned that she had completed over 1,000 paintings and numerous limited-edition lithographs.  One of her plates, Mail Order Bride (above right - middle), was voted the co-winner as "Most Popular Lithograph of 1978" by readers of Plate Collector magazine.  It sold for $75 in a limited edition series.  Another one of her works, Naptime (above right - bottom), from 1983, was issued in a series of 10,000 (Black & Feret).

Irish's paintings, at the peak of her success, were know to have sold for as much as $12,000, although most were priced between $1,500 and $6,000 (Glamour Girls).  Pat Nixon, wife of Richard, purchased one of Irish's seascape paintings, which was later exhibited in the Western Wing of the White House (Femme Fatales).  Other paintings by Irish are on display in the Los Angeles Museum of Arts and Sciences and the Cowboy Hall of Fame.  Irish said that her favourite paintings were Blossom Soft (above), a painting of her daughter-in-law and her first granddaughter, and Mail Order Bride (see above), which Irish described as "terribly successful" (Black & Feret).

In 1982 Irish and her new, and third, husband, Chuck Rowland, moved to Prescott, Arizona, where she remained for the rest of her life.  Irish established a relationship with the owner of The Treasures of Art gallery in Scotsdale Arizona and most of her paintings were sold through that outlet.  In the spring of 1988 Irish held a very successful one-woman art show at the Scotsdale gallery.  This was the show where one of her pieces sold for $12,000, as mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Another place that displayed original artwork by Irish was The Sunwest Gallery in Prescott.  It was located on Whiskey Row, a restored historical site that was sometimes used as a film set ("My subject matter is as varied as everything else I do.  I paint in oil, watercolors and pastels.  I enjoy painting nudes, seascapes, landscapes, Indian portraits and mountain men.  Whatever I'm doing at the time seems to be my favorite subject.  Living and showing my work in Arizona, I tend to have a greater call for Western art, but my paintings of children and nudes are also in good demand") (Black & Feret).  The nude at left, called Warm Summer Night, was painted by Irish in 1992.  "No, it isn't me." She explained, "I painted it out of mind to express a feeling." (Celebrity Sleuth) See the Final Years pages for more information about Irish's Arizona years.

Bill Feret, one of Irish's biographers, interviewed her for a short article in Heroic Fantasy magazine in 1985 and he asked her if she missed working in films.  "No," she replied. "Now with my paintings the whole production is mine alone.  I am the producer and director, and no one tells me what to do but myself."  In their biography, Feret and his collaborator, Bill Black, point out that Irish's biggest hurdle through her whole career as an artist was to be taken seriously.  Looking as she did, even in later life, made it very difficult for people to overcome their prejudices.  There is no doubt that she was one of the most beautiful women of her time and it was inconceivable to most people that she should also be a talented artist.  The fact that she herself had posed for some of the master illustrators of that era only adds to the wonder (see Glamour Galleries page).

When asked what it really takes to be an artist Irish replied that it was a combination of having the talent and ability to draw well, combined with lots of hard, hard work.  She also said that an artist must have lots of life experiences, determination, time, and a burning desire to create ("Most of us are artists because we just can't help it.  Art is as much a part of us as our voice and our thoughts.  It's the very best part of what we are able to share with the world.") (Ultra Filmfax)

I mentioned above that art was always Irish McCalla's dominant preoccupation, no matter what she was doing.  Her incredibly successful work as a glamour model helped fund her early days in California while she was attempting to hone her craft as a freelance artist.  Several years later, when she was working on location in Mexico filming the Sheena Queen of the Jungle series she was being inspired to paint by the colourful local people and the gorgeous jungle vegetation.  For a decade in the late-Fifties and early-Sixties Irish toured to promote the Sheena series and dabbled in film and television, but wherever she went, from Cuba to Japan, she always painted and sketched (if she could find the time).  Writing this page has been illuminating for me, because it has forced me to see the world from Irish's perspective.  Personally, I find a lot of Irish's art to be overly sentimental and romanticised, but there is no doubting her graphic skill as an artist of the Americana genre.  I also think much of her art clearly shows her strong affection for children.  The lesson I learned is this - while we are all busy falling over ourselves for a voyeuristic glimpse of her statuesque Amazonian physique, we should not lose sight of the fact that Irish's whole life was dominated by one principal interest - her art.  She was also a loving mother.  She also worked at improving her mediocre talents as an actor.  But her overwhelming feminine beauty should not blind us to the fact that Irish McCalla only ever wanted to create beauty herself - through the tip of the brush in her own left hand.

Femme Fatales magazine Jan 99
Ultra Filmfax magazine No. 66, Apr-May 98,
Prevue Pin Up Special 2 magazine, Aug-Oct 94
Glamour Girls: Then and Now magazine, premiere issue Mar-Apr 94
Heroic Fantasy magazine, Aug 85
TV's Original Sheena - Irish McCalla by Bill Black & Bill Feret, Paragon Publications 1992

• The 1950 photo of Irish painting a young man's shirt is from my personal collection
• The photo of Irish painting a mural is from Eve magazine No. 1, Oct 50
• The photo of Irish posing for Alberto Vargas is from Night and Day magazine, Dec 51- personal collection
• The image of Blossom Soft is from TV's Original Sheena - Irish McCalla by Bill Black & Bill Feret, Paragon Publications 1992
• The images of three collector plates by Irish - Feeding the Neighbor's Pony, Mail Order Bride and Naptime - were all pilfered from eBay auction items
• The photo of Irish at the art show and the image of Warm Summer Night are from Celebrity Sleuth magazine, Vol 9 No 9 1996

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006-2008 Paul Wickham
This page was updated May 2008