Against the Odds
In a kaleidoscope of color, Sheila Brannan lives her life. A stained glass artist, she creates works for Tamarack in Beckley and various stores and coffee shops around Shepherdstown. Five years ago, she had an aneurysm that threatened it all.
Brannan is a self-taught stained glass artist who resides in Shepherdstown, W. Va. Her dog and cat by her side, Sheila creates one-of-a-kind pieces for friends, galleries and local businesses.
Brannan was doing painting jobs before she transitioned into stained glass. She recalls walking down Atlantic Avenue in Rockport, Mass. and noticing a circular house overlooking the harbor where Samuel Chamberlain used to paint. There was a small window with a stained glass design and Sheila had an epiphany.
“It was truly an ‘A-Ha!” moment,” Brannan said. “I stopped in my tracks and thought, ‘I have to do that!’ I bought books, and I bought tools and glass and taught myself to do glass.”
She’s come a long way since then. Since moving to Shepherdstown from Massachusetts in 1996, Brannan has turned her home into an art studio and sold her work to numerous local patrons. Dickinson and Wait, the local art gallery and store, is one that sells and displays her work.
“I’ve always felt that she existed outside the realm of normal with her pieces,” said Garth Janssen, owner of the Lost Dog Caf. Some of Sheila’s smaller stained glass creations hang in the windows of the popular coffee shop.
In late 2007, Brannan suffered a massive aneurysm that threatened both her life and her work.
“I had just come back from a painting job,” she recalled. “I was in the shed, and I had this crescendo of music in my head. Later, I realized it sounded like the last chord in the Beatles’ song ‘A Day in the Life,’ and I got sparkles and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m having a stroke.'”
After collapsing in her gravel driveway, Brannan crawled from the shed to the porch, where she had left her phone. She contacted a friend to call for an ambulance.
Once she was in the hospital, doctors determined Brannan had actually suffered from a brain aneurysm. According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, a brain aneurysm ruptures every 18 minutes in the United States, and about 40 percent of cases are fatal. Of those who survive, 66 percent suffer permanent neurological damage.
While she was in the hospital, Brannan’s doctors had to drill open her skull in order to reach the aneurysm. During the emergency surgery, the doctors had just clamped the artery in her neck, to prevent further damage when suddenly, another one burst right next to her optic nerve.
Brannan was able to survive both aneurysms, but was faced with a new concern once she woke up. After three long weeks in the hospital, she began her recovery at home.
“I remember the rehab doctor telling me I wasn’t going to be able to do my work because this blood vessel was right next to my optic nerve, and he thought I was going to lose my vision,” Brannan said. “You don’t tell me I can’t do something. He’d say, ‘You should be dead,’ and I’d say, ‘I guess not!’ I remember going back to see him with photographs of a window I had done just to show him, yes, I’m still working.”
Brannan proved her doctor wrong and continued working with glass.
In fact, when John King, a friend of Brannan’s, lost his wife to an aneurysm, he asked Brannan to commemorate his late wife’s spirit with a sunrise scene based on a picture he took in Italy.
A huge arched window with that scene now overlooks the living room in King’s home. With the sun casting its light differently on the glass each day, the piece seems to come alive. King believes that his late wife’s spirit lives on through the glass.
“Everything about it was right,” said King, reflecting on the piece in his living room. “What you seek are reminders that are meaningful, and that certainly, is so that is a big part of what we did.”
Brannan continues to come up with new ideas, sell them to various buyers, and travel with the Over the Mountain Studio Tour. The tour is a group of artists in the Jefferson County area, which exhibits different mediums such as sculpture, jewelry, pottery, and more.
Brannan takes on other short-term jobs to support her art, like administering standardized tests in schools and doing census work. She remains busy, but it is never lost on her how lucky she is to be alive.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to a place that life is the new normal,” she said. “When I finally got back into the studio, I realized how much I love it, and the thought of it actually being taken away was horrifying. It reminds me that it’s an incredible gift, and I’m just amazed that I’m still alive to do it.”