Becky O’Toole continues to give back through her art


Art is not a thing; it is a way.

For Becky O’Toole, it’s a way of giving back. The Fates smiled on the gifted acrylic painter after two crushing medical diagnoses separated by a mere two years—one was breast cancer, the other leukemia.

That she is in remission from both owes much to her fortitude, her support system and the treatment she received. That she is able to devote herself to art and to donating her work to brighten the days of fellow patients owes everything to a positive outlook.

Today, the Daniel Island transplant donates her work widely.

“My artwork isn’t just about what it is but what it can do,” says O’Toole. “That’s where my phrase ‘paintings with purpose’ comes from.”

Originally from Pennsylvania, O’Toole started The Pink Frame while recovering from breast cancer treatments in the Massachusetts seacoast town of Scituate, where her family lived for 12 years.

“Breast cancer treatments were less taxing than those for leukemia, the initial stage of which meant four weeks where I could not leave the hospital room I was in,” she says. “Sitting in a bed 24-7 was pretty dreary, and I couldn’t just look at the walls. So I decided to paint small pieces using acrylic paints because I couldn’t be around anything with fumes or chemicals. I set up my room like a studio and would invite the nurses in to visit, all while escaping to the sounds of country music. Painting, and giving paintings to other patients, was my way of surviving. It saved my life.”

O’Toole had experienced the same physical and emotional stresses suffered by other patients, whose weakened immune systems would permit few elements of light and color in their rooms. O’Toole’s paintings, freely given, were a window to life on an otherwise blank wall.

The Pink Frame’s “Charleston chapter” is simply an extension of what O’Toole was doing, and continues to do, in New England: donating her work and time to the community.

“For every painting I sell in stores and galleries or through fundraisers, I donate a portion back to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center in Charleston,” she says.

O’Toole wasted no time resuming her work after she and her family—husband Gavin and daughters Maggie and Meredith—arrived in the Lowcountry a year and a half ago.

“I started painting immediately,” she says. “I got right to work two days after setting up the house here. I was excited to bring all the things I had created to Daniel Island. I immediately started donating work here as well as to organizations such as Share Our Suzy Lowcountry, Swing for the Lowcountry, Nothing Pink and area schools.”

O’Toole majored in photography and design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, among the nation’s foremost schools at the intersections of technology, art and design. After college, she wanted the challenge of living in New York City.

“I wound up going into interior design for three years, then worked at the Boston Design Center,” says O’Toole, who met her husband in that city. “I worked as a project manager for many years and always have been involved in art.”

Today, she is noted for her seascapes. There is an ethereal quality to the work, with a pastel color palette that conveys the essential serenity and timelessness of the sea at rest, though some of the tonal combinations on darker paintings seem to suggest the potential for turbulence that is always present.

O’Toole works exclusively in the studio, where, for her, no turbulence exists.

“The first thing I do is put on the music for the day, and the calm I feel has much to do with that,” she explains. “I work from feelings; it’s not something I think about. I pick out the colors I like and throw them on the canvas. It’s the most Zen place I can go to. I completely zone out. My dog, Lucy, is always on the chair with me. It’s a wonderful experience.”

O’Toole’s medium of choice remains acrylics. Her technique involves slathering the colors she desires on the canvas, using rubber gloves to spread them around the expanse, then going over it with brushstrokes.

“I love what I do with acrylic paints,” she says. “I like working under the pressure of a quickly drying medium. The colors do tend toward pastel, which reflects the nature of so many of the beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in my life. But I’m also mesmerized by old travel postcards with pastel skies.”

Her overriding subject matter remains the sea, with the peace and calm of her representations harboring much of their therapeutic power. “I have friends who say a painting is like yoga for your wall,” she says. “It’s having something visual that takes you to another place. This resonates with a lot of different people of different ages.”

But O’Toole occasionally diverts from her oceanic themes. She also has been known to paint whales and dabble in more whimsical areas. Among her favorite things to do is to paint with children.

“I am an upbeat person, but that was tested by the illnesses and my path to recovery,” adds O’Toole, who has sold more than 5,000 pieces over the past seven years. “I always try to see the positive in things and be a helper, and the universe helped me in return. I don’t know if I would have done this if I had not gotten the diseases. But I would have done something creative.” *

Bill Thompson covers the arts, film, books and design.

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