When Sheila Arora, ’11, talks about painting, her voice quickens.

“I love the process of painting,” she said. “You just sort of lean into your feelings, lean into your body, lean into your intuition. It’s spontaneous. You don’t plan ahead. You paint what you’re feeling at the moment.”

At her sunny apartment in Evanston, Illinois—which doubles as her studio—canvases are everywhere, stacked against walls and piled on top of every surface.

Arora’s work is abstract and brilliantly colored using vivid combinations of materials, including oils and acrylics, charcoals and pastels that are built up in loose grids that both conceal and reveal earlier ideas and conceptions.

Occasionally, there are scrawled lines or wobbly geometric shapes or half-painted-out words and phrases. But mainly there are ecstatic clouds of color—reds and pinks, mauve, emerald green, teal and midnight blue, purple and sunflower yellow—highlighted by splotches of inky black.

“Every painting I do is different, and you have to figure it out while you’re doing it,” she said. “I never thought of myself as a risk-taker in the corporate world, but when I’m painting I’ll try anything.”

The mention of the corporate world momentarily silences her. Arora is midway through a yearlong sabbatical from her job as a finance manager for Walgreens and is not sure what direction she will eventually choose to pursue.

As a child, Arora was always drawing and painting. But she came from a family of engineers, and eventually succumbed to the pressure to enter the business world. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton with a degree in economics and finance and pursued an MBA at Booth. And for 15 years, she climbed the corporate ladder.

She started as an associate consultant at Rosetta before joining Kraft Foods (now Kraft Heinz) as a financial analyst. This was followed by seven years at Walgreens, where she began as a senior financial analyst and eventually moved up to finance manager with responsibility for $150 million in corporate spending.

“I never thought of myself as a risk-taker in the corporate world, but when I’m painting I’ll try anything.”

— Sheila Arora

Then came summer 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and corporate offices emptied, Arora took a moment to step back. She decided it was time to take a leave of absence and focus on what until now had been a hobby reserved for evenings and weekends.

“I usually paint for four or five hours in the afternoon,” she said of her new schedule. “I think my work has gotten better over the past year because I’m not distracted.”

The leave has given her time to explore the business aspects of art. In spring 2020 she worked on a social influencer campaign with paint manufacturer Liquitex. She experimented with various Liquitex products and then posted the resulting work on Instagram. In fall 2020 she did a similar partnership with retailer Blick Art Materials, and she participated in an episode of The Left Brain Artist podcast.

This summer she will need to make a choice about whether or not to return to the business world. Thanks largely to her online exposure, her work is starting to sell. She is now represented by Prairiebrooke Arts in Overland Park, Kansas, and was part of the Spring Art Fair at its gallery in May.

But she admits that the life of an artist is not an easy one. And while great work benefits from solitude and time, her schedule can be isolating.

“The business world is very social. You’re always in contact with people, and sometimes I miss that,” she said.

So what will it be? She doesn’t know. Her skills flourish in both the art and corporate worlds, and there’s plenty of crossover. Arora credits her time at Booth—and especially her classes with Harry L. Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management—with encouraging her to explore and take risks.

“Professor Davis talked a lot about balancing logic and intuition and looking at things from different angles and perspectives.” While those were words for the business world, Arora said, “those are all things I use in my paintings.”

While Arora isn’t certain about her future, she is clear on one thing. “If you ask me what my passion is,” she said, “it’s definitely painting.”