Painting a Better World

Artist Sheila Dunn
Artist Sheila Dunn. Photo by Jason Bagby

By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)

Since she was in high school, Sheila Dunn (B.F.A., ’06) has been determined to become a full-time artist, despite the skeptical reactions when she articulated her ambition. A study abroad trip to Italy with a painting professor further cemented her goal. Spending time in the birthplace of the Renaissance convinced Dunn of the importance of art to a culture and a country. When one of her college professors told his painting class, “The number of graduates who still paint after 10 years really drops,” she vowed she would “keep painting, no matter what!”

Sheila Dunn standing in canyon landscape
Smith Rock, oil on canvas. Photo by Rich Bacon photography.

Following graduation, she traveled for a few years, but always took painting supplies with her. Eventually she settled in Bend, Oregon, where she taught yoga and set up a painting studio in a friend’s uninsulated garage. A propane heater “kept one side sweltering while the other side froze,” and a chicken coop next door provided a constant serenade. Her next job was doing graphic design for a nonprofit community clinic for underserved and uninsured individuals. True to her vow, she continued to paint.

Two years ago, Dunn became a full-time artist. She now has a significantly larger and warmer studio in an old WWII officers’ quarters, which “has lots of character.” Her paintings include many landscapes; she explains, “I paint what is sacred to me.” She donates 10% of sales to organizations who are working to protect what she finds sacred. For example, she has donated to the Conservation Alliance in Bend, the Grand Canyon Trust, and the Oregon Desert Land Trust. She also has painted various figures of resistance and donated 10% of those sales to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Her latest adventure was this November in Nepal, where a few of her paintings were hung in the U.S. Embassy. The Art in the Embassies program aims to create cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and artist exchanges. Started by the New York Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s, President Kennedy made it an official government project.

Sheila Dunn with Gov. Polis in Nepal
Dunn with Gov. Polis, left, and Randy Berry at the U.S. Embassy in Nepal

Randy Berry, a career Foreign Service officer and first special envoy for the LGBTQ community in the State Department, owns three of Dunn’s paintings, including one of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where he grew up. Now the U.S. ambassador to Nepal, Berry arranged for Dunn’s work to hang in the dining room of the embassy. Colorado Governor Jared Polis attended the embassy reception honoring Dunn. While in Nepal, she also taught workshops and master classes for aspiring artists of all ages and went to Katmandu to work with their national museum.

Dunn comes from a family of Rams. Her mother, Colleen Dunn (B.S., ’71), was business manager for Seven Lakes Recovery; her sister, Maura Dunn (B.S., ’03; M.S., ’08), is senior manager of social media for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; and her brother, Kevin Dunn (B.S., ’01), is director of brokerage services and asset acquisition/disposition for Rincon Construction Services.

Sheila Dunn’s contribution to the larger community has now become international. She illustrates beautifully not only the importance of art but also the ways in which it is an integral part of our land-grant mission.