Sheila Dunn’s Authenticity on Life and Art

“Nude in white” by Sheila Dunn

by Lynn S. Schwebach

If I could pick my neighbors, I would choose to live next door to Sheila Dunn.

I want to be able to knock on her door at anytime to get a glimpse of her next creation. Maybe she would invite me in, from time to time, and I could ask her more questions about her painting process, and how her views change as her life and art evolve, and how she thinks art affects our world, and how the world affects art.

I would ask her so many questions that she would stop opening her door, claiming that she needed more time to paint. So it’s good that we’re not neighbors because her work is too important to interrupt.

I’ve long admired Sheila’s work, and I’m thankful  that she did allow me to trespass long enough to get to know the extraordinary talent behind the paintings. Here is the interview.

Bravelycreative: What is your background? Where are you from? Did you go to art school? Where do you live now, and why? 

I grew up in Fort Collins, Colo., or “Fort Fun” as I like to affectionately call it.  It was so fun in fact that I chose to stay there for college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in painting, and a minor in art history from Colorado State University.

In 2005, I studied abroad in an Italian town in the heart of Tuscany called  Castiglion Fiorentino. For five months, I ate A LOT of amazing food, drank A LOT of mediocre wine (I couldn’t afford the good stuff) and deepened,  in the most profound and firsthand way, my understanding and appreciation for art’s place in society.  My Italian art history professor, Paolo, was one of the greatest minds I’ve ever encountered and I feel infinitely grateful to have explored the birthplace of the Renaissance through his lens of knowledge and passion.

I now live in Bend, a beautiful town in the middle of nowhere, central Oregon.  When my brother came to visit me, he remarked, “So you moved to the Fort Collins of Oregon.”  It really is quite similar to my home town: mountains, rivers, bikes and breweries galore.  I suppose we always seek a sense of home no matter where we are in the world.  The Northwest is truly a magical place though.  I love that I can drive one hour east to the ruggedly beautiful desert or drive one hour west and be in a lush forest rich with waterfalls and hot springs.  And when I’m craving a bit more culture, I can visit Portland – one of my favorite cities on earth.

Bravelycreative: What is your medium?  

Water-mixable oils.  I realize that sounds like an oxymoron but they do exist.  They are a nice combination of the viscosity and luminosity of oils, and the shorter drying time of acrylics.  I loved working with oils, but couldn’t handle the turpentine – I could pretty much feel my brain cells frying when I spent too much time in the painting studio in college.  Water-mixable oils have been a great solution for my brain – and for my impatient personality.

Bravelycreative: I know that you have traveled quite a bit – even lived for a while in Guatemala. Why did you live there? How has traveling and living abroad affected your art, if at all? Where is one place that you haven’t seen that you would love to visit?

I moved to Guatemala for a couple of reasons – the first to learn Spanish.  This is the easy answer and when people ask, this is what I generally tell them.  But I think the truer, albeit more ambiguous reason, was to give myself some breathing room; a place to heal from some past relationships and reconnect to my own heart.

I know they say that the “geographic cure” doesn’t always work, but I found my time in Guatemala to be incredibly healing.  I had moments that were blissfully happy, and moments that were quite frightening, but I felt very alive, very awake in each.  So in this way I would say that it affected my art.  My color palette didn’t change, my medium didn’t change, but my way of relating to myself and others did – and as a result, so did my artistic process.

One place that I haven’t seen that I want to visit?… Everywhere!  I have a certifiable travel addiction.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had the funds to feed my addiction in the past couple of years, but I look forward to my future adventures.  My siblings and I have daydreamed about Peru a lot, so that might be next on the list.

Bravelycreative: What inspires you? Are there times when you’re more creative than other times?

Wow, so much.  A general curiosity of this “one wild and precious life” we all get to live, to  quote the American poet Mary Oliver. I’m also inspired by individuals who pursue their passions tirelessly and without fear of the outcome – and music, poetry, and the complexity of the feminine.  How’s that for an abstruse answer?!

I guess it’s hard for me to pinpoint any specific inspiration – it’s more like I feel this ever-present need to create that is almost beyond my understanding.  There are moments when I consider how many hours of time and energy I have poured into a painting (often maddening hours if it’s not going as planned) and then the realization that it may never sell.  But the truth is – I don’t really care.  I will keep making art regardless.  I think Martha Graham described it best:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. 

Bravelycreative: Who are your favorite artists? Why?

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Lucian Freud, Jenny Saville and Stefan Kleinschuster – to name a few.  Each captures the human figure in a beautifully rendered, authentic way.

Bravelycreative: What are your greatest fears? (concerning art or otherwise?)

Art: not being authentic.

Otherwise: the destruction of the environment.  I’ve been listening to Arcade Fire’s newest album, aptly named The Suburbs, and one line in particular is so haunting to me, “Oh, this city’s changed so much since I was a little child; pray to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild.”  I fear living to see the destruction of yet more wilderness and more disregard for life in all its varied and essential forms.

Bravelycreative: What in the world today – politically or socially – would you love to see changed or “fixed?” 

Oh boy – good thing I had some warm-up questions!  I will once again steal from a greater mind, this time from none other than Einstein who so eloquently stated, The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”

So I suppose my wish for the world is an overall heightening of human consciousness and awareness.  Simple enough, right?   Really though, I think it’s very doable, and I see it happening every day.  I believe it begins with a whole lot of self-awareness; learning to be truly gentle with yourself, learning to forgive yourself, learning to be honest with yourself.  I consciously work on those three things every day (to varying degrees of success) and in doing so, I am able to be more gentle, forgiving and honest with others.  Follow this with a healthy dose of gratitude, which elicits a natural desire to preserve those people, places and things which we deem irreplaceable, and voila! Consciousness heightened!  Not perfect, not enlightenment, but perhaps enough to raise us above the level of thinking that is destructive to ourselves, to our fellow human beings and to our planet.

Bravelycreative: Your newsletters are so well written and interesting.  Do you like to write, and if so, have you ever considered writing a book?  If so, what type of book would you write? Fiction or nonfiction? Who is your favorite author?

Why, thank you!  I do like to write although I’ve never seriously considered writing a book. Thanks for planting that seed, though. If I do take on that adventure at some point, I think it would be a memoir of sorts.

Barbara Kingsolver, David James Duncan and Jonathan Safran Foer are a few of my favorite authors.

Bravelycreative: Do you have any other creative passions? 

I LOVE to dance.

Bravelycreative: Do you paint fulltime or do you have a “day job?” 

I do have a day job. I work at the non-profit health clinic, Mosaic Medical.  I also teach yoga although I’ve been on a bit of a sabbatical from that the past year –  too busy with everything else!

To see more of Sheila Dunn’s art, and sign up for her newsletter, go to the website Sheila Dunn.

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