When artist Sheila Pringle was named artist of the month at Perspective Gallery in May, she couldn’t help but reflect on the extraordinary circumstances that got her to that moment. The decade she spent during her youth studying for a career in painting at Corcoran School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., somehow seemed the distant muse that would one day reach out to her at a time in her life when she felt hopelessly unreachable. A progression of her paintings over the last two decades serve as her personal diary, illustrating her long journey back from a brain tumor to recapture the shine—that perpetual reflection of sunlight off of water that dominates the South Carolina landscape.
Family legend has it that Pringle began painting at the age of 3, though her first memories of holding paintbrushes in her hands were at age 5, when her mother fibbed about her age to get her into the prestigious Corcoran School, the famous art school that has since been absorbed by George Washington University. When her family moved to Florida when she was 15, her painting took a back seat to typical teenage distractions. “I went off to college and eventually became a landscape architect,” says Pringle, who was registered in South Carolina and also did landscape design work for projects in Ohio, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. “I worked until my second child was born.”
With the increasing demands of her two small children and ailing parents, Pringle finally gave up her career to care for her family. About a year after her father passed away, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that stretched across both frontal lobes.
“It was a meningioma,” she explains. “It was attached to the part of the brain that is dedicated to the higher orders of learning, appropriate behaviors and that sort of thing. While these tumors are usually benign, they suffocate your brain to death. So the tumor had to be removed.
“When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor 22 years ago, there weren’t a lot of therapies available for people who suffered from traumatic brain injuries. I was afraid I would demonstrate the inappropriate behaviors the doctors warned me about, so I became a recluse. My husband and children were instrumental to me regaining my health. They assumed the roles of my rehabilitation therapists. But despite the progress I made, I was still missing the mark.”
Eventually, Pringle was prescribed medication used in patients diagnosed with attention deficient disorder. “The day I took my first dose of an ADD drug, I was cleaning the house and came across my old painting supplies I’d stuffed in a closet,” she recalls. “I dragged it all out and started painting again that day. The results were pretty dramatic.”
Painting almost exclusively from her imagination, Pringle’s struggle to regain her true self poured onto the canvases, her works often dominated by dark, muddy colors and images. But as time went on, her story changed and so did her work. She began telling her story using the “good” colors,” as she describes them.
“This is South Carolina, where stories run deep,” she says of her artistic philosophy. “This is why I paint. Without a story, the vibrancy of colorist theory and adherence to the structure provided by the composition in my paintings are wasted.”
In May 2017, when artist Amelia Rose Smith worked with artists to organize Perspective Gallery, a nonprofit gallery that represents local artists belonging to the Mount Pleasant Artists Guild, she recommended that Pringle be a part of it. Pringle also operates Talking Trees Gallery, an online gallery that exclusively features her oil paintings.
Despite the discovery of a second meningioma two years ago—it was removed with the latest technologies and without extensive brain trauma—Pringle continues to depend on her painting to connect her to the world from which she once hid.
“Painting saved my life,” she concludes.
Patra Taylor is a full-time freelance writer living in Mount Pleasant.