Artist Believes Brain Tumor Influenced His Paintings — Before He Even Knew It Existed

Shawn Thornton believes his artwork alluded to the presence of a cancerous brain tumor — before doctors found the mass.

The painter from Philadelphia began to feel strange sensations in his head and suspect that something wasn’t right at the age of 19, but doctors failed to accurately diagnose him with a germ cell tumor in the center of his brain until ten years later. In the meantime, Thornton, now 37, says the growing tumor and his internal battle with his deteriorating mental health translated into stunning and unique artwork.

Serpent's Egg
“The Serpent’s Egg in The Seat Of Consciousness” by Shawn Thornton, the self-portrait mentioned below
Witch Doctor (1)
“Witch Doctors At The Eye of The Solar Epoch” By Shawn Thornton

Thornton told The Mighty in an email that for years, doctors refused to do a brain scan on him, possibly because he did not have health insurance, until the tumor grew so large that it covered his ventricles and brought on horrible migraine attacks.

The tumor grew on his pineal gland, which is a tiny, pine-cone shaped organ that secretes melatonin. It’s sometimes referred to as “the third eye” because of its mystical and spiritual associations, as well as its location at nearly the exact center of the brain, according to It’s considered a little bit mysterious, as its function was discovered last of all the endocrine glands. The mystery surrounding the tiny organ perhaps also stems from the famed French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who was intrigued by the pineal gland and regarded it as “the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

While the gland’s status as a spiritual center is debated, Thornton believes it deeply influenced his paintings.

“In the self-portrait on my Flickr page (above), I painted that piece a year before I even knew that I had a tumor in my ‘third eye,’ a year before I even knew what the pineal gland even was,” Thornton explained on his Reddit thread. “The next painting ‘Fracture In The Golden Mean’ (below) really has a lot of symbolism that alludes to surgery and radiation, in my opinion. That too was completed a full year before I was diagnosed.”

“Fracture In The Golden Mean” by Shawn Thornton
“Lobotomy of the Ghost Mechanics (Scarab Timetable” by Shawn Thornton

His small oil paintings are incredibly detailed and take years to complete. Currently, Thornton is doing a five-week artist residency at Ox-Bow School of  the Arts on Lake Michigan, thanks to proceeds from a Kickstarter campaign he recently completed.

He’s now cancer-free but his experience still affects him.

“This circumstance I had to face is just all part of the craziness of our individual lives,” he told fellow Redditors. “And we’ve always got to try and make the best of it.”

He hopes his artwork will touch the lives of many people.

“I’d like my work to potentially ignite a spark in others — to have them perceive or be affected by it,” Thornton told The Mighty. “Basically, I’d like to create magic.”

To see more of Shawn Thornton’s work, check him out on Facebook or Flickr.

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