A professor at the School of Art for over 30 years, Sheila Pitt, passed away on April 30, 2020. As an educator, she taught art students printmaking, but as an individual, she taught us all the power of determination, perseverance, and resilience. Her life was turned upside down after a catastrophic accident in 2008. She was thrown from a horse, breaking her neck and becoming quadriplegic. Sheila had to relearn how to make and teach art. She returned to the classroom in 2009, after one year of surgeries and challenging rehabilitation.
“I decided to major in art specifically because of Sheila Pitt,” alumna Mora Kelleher-Smith remembers. “At the beginning, I thought she was really hard, but her confidence in me has given me confidence in myself. She has taught me that I can always do better.”
Sheila was a woodcut printmaker. After the accident, she learned to sketch with her non-dominant, mostly paralyzed hand, on a computer, which she continued to do, along with teaching, for nearly 12 more years.
A passionate teacher and a generous colleague, she will be greatly missed.
Friends and Colleagues Remember Sheila
Sheila was my inspiring colleague and dear friend for 30 years. We were very different: she was the artist, I the historian; she thought of herself as a fierce warrior, I thought of myself as a cautious diplomat. And yet we connected deeply through a mutual love of art, teaching, and horses. Sheila was also my riding buddy and we stabled our horses and rode together for many years. Sheila often challenged me, she even pushed my buttons, but she also encouraged and supported me, and that push and pull made me a stronger, better person. I suspect she did the same for her students. An astute and energetic colleague, she also enjoyed considerable artistic success, as did many of her students. Courageous, critical, funny, and loyal, Sheila was a force to be reckoned with because she cared so deeply. Of her numerous gifts, the most powerful was the joyful passion with which she embraced every aspect of life. I am honored to have been her friend.
Dr. Pia Cuneo, Professor, Art History
University of Arizona School of Art
I met Sheila Pitt when she was finishing her graduate studies at the University of Arizona in printmaking. She exuded energy and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant and her work was powerful and direct. She had no qualms about experimenting with content and mixing media. Her technique was well mastered.
Later, when I hired her as a new faculty member I was not surprised as she rose to the position of Head for the Print Area, working closely with colleagues to foster excellence and national recognition. The student and faculty print exchanges that she and Andy Polk began quickly moved into national and international exchanges of portfolios. Some of these print portfolios are in museum collections here and across the country. Sheila’s art was exhibited across America and in Eastern Europe. In addition, she participated in artist residencies in Europe and China.
Sheila was a colleague who did not hesitate to critique my work and asked me for mine in return. She was the best friend and colleague, an artist with talent and integrity. In my 44 years of university teaching, I find it rare to have had a colleague who felt comfortable participating in such an open dialogue with other colleagues. She was honest, direct, and driven, never complaining about things, offering solutions to difficulties.
After her paralyzing accident she remained upbeat, did not complain and was eager to continue teaching and sharing her knowledge, skills, and experiences with students. Her sense of humor, her generosity of spirit and her willingness to commit her time to others was truly remarkable. These impressive traits of Shelia Pitt, along with her smile, remain a memorable gift to all.
Moira Geoffrion, Professor Emerita
University of Arizona School of Art
Revered by students and colleagues, Sheila Pitt’s mark on the School of Art should never be underestimated. An internationally active artist, an outstanding teacher, and a hardworking colleague, she was an inspiration to all who knew her. She never held back from speaking her mind – her candor could be brutal – but this is part of what she was loved for, especially because it was backed by knowledge, insight and passion. Her students knew the benefits of taking her instruction seriously. Her classes were widely popular.
It was a terrible tragedy when she lost the use of most of her body, but being who she was, she did not give up. She continued to teach and to make art with the same excellence that had distinguished her previously. No one should have to endure the immense physical hardships that plagued her as a paraplegic, yet she rarely complained and always managed to have a positive attitude. I will always think of Sheila with awe and admiration. She inspired me with her strength and tenacity, and I am grateful for having been witness to her example.
Andrew Polk, Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona School of Art
Sheila Pitt was a force to be reckoned with. She was bold, multi-dimensional in her interests and devotions, and no-nonsense. Many of times she left us graduate students to our own defenses in the print studio. We had to figure out how to run the shop and deal with intolerant master printers that were coming in on temporary projects. But she was always there to pick up the pieces. Always. Even up to this current time! I was a graduate student at U of A in 2002. Just recently, I contacted her last March to share the news about my most recent promotion as Head of Printmaking at Miami University. She was thrilled and full of pride on the behalf of my accomplishments. It should also be said that her support and counseling post graduate school are the main reason I even have the career I do now. Although I had graduated a year prior and was in a 3 year visiting position, she took my calls and counseled me through all the tough negotiations involved in gaining a good tenure track position. She was tough and soft and loved her plants and animals and her family. There was something slightly wild about her, and I was not surprised that she rebounded with such a passion after her debilitating accident. She just went on with it. I regularly think about this and how I can be better in the midst of adversity and politics and general everyday things that get between you and what you love to do. My life was deeply impacted by her and I feel deep remorse for her loss.
Tracy Featherstone, Professor of Art, Head of Printmaking
While we may have butt heads initially, I eventually managed to convince Sheila that the flatness in my prints was not only intentional, but the very quality I desired to exploit in pursuing printmaking to begin with. Once that occurred, she was fully onboard and supportive of my explorations into that direction; helping me to secure a grant to go study the Japanese printmaking technique Mokuhanga in Santa Fe (my minor was Japanese Language, and I’ve been fascinated with Ukiyo-e for years), and culminating in a print series on mylar sheet assemblages which was initially inspired by some entirely pragmatic prints she had made on mylar herself as overlay-able examples of the stages of a reduction print-block.
That was my personal, scholastic experience with Sheila, but I witnessed her inspire many others in similar ways; helping them find their particular angle to influence and motivate their work and studies. From botany to cinema, from ceramics to textiles/stitching (the latter of which she had begun incorporating into some of her own prints), even as broadly as from anarchy to professional football; Sheila helped students find those grains of sand to embrace and form into pearls. She could be blunt and no-nonsense, but her points were valid, useful, and always came from her heart. She simply had no interest in wasting her time or yours. Once you got and were open to her, she was an absolute joy to get to know and share any amount of time with. Sheila was a phenomenal printmaker, a phenomenal professor, and a phenomenal person.
Sheila Pitt was a big supporter of mine during my graduate studies in the printmaking department at the U of A. She was my initial point of contact and was the first person to take me on as a graduate assistant in her beginning printmaking course. When she would visit with me in my studio I always ended up taking what she said to heart – I respected her frankness. Sheila was one of the first people to buy one of my works of art, and not out of pity, but because she liked it, or at least she acted like she did. I looked up to her, she was a good mentor and when I graduated she gave me a nice set of Japanese woodcut tools. I am very grateful that I was able to spend three years working with such an accomplished printmaker. She will be missed.