INTERVIEW: Sheila Graber | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Mill Dam 2017, artwork by Sheila Graber

The first thing to immediately become apparent when talking to octogenarian artist and animator Sheila Graber is her passion for the arts and education. The South Shields-born artist has as global reputation, having had her work shown across the world and innumerable shorts screened from the likes of the Tate Gallery and the Pompidou Centre. Whether she’s beating Disney to an animation job or documenting her beloved local area, she talks with passion and enthusiasm about the many “happy accidents” that led to some fascinating projects.

Sheila’s latest commercial exhibition, Sheila From Shields & Her Cat, is on display via The Customs House website, and sales from her work will raise money for the South Shields institution. Having begun capturing her home town in paintings from the age of 11, Sheila’s artwork takes the viewer on a journey of the area; from her time living in the pilotage when her dad was the Tyne Pilot Master, taking in the transformation of the area over the decades. The online exhibition is accompanied by insights into Sheila’s work by Shields Gazette journalist Janis Blower, whose words add information, humanity and humour to Sheila’s animations and paintings.

Of Sheila’s many career highlights the QuiziCat must be one of the favourites; a curious animation inspired by Whitey the cat, an inspiration for Sheila during the first 21 years of her animation career and beyond, who leads the viewer around the online exhibition.

On the subject of highlights, Sheila cites being asked to animate Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories instead of Disney; the Kipling Estate hadn’t liked what Disney had done with the Jungle Book. “I was invited by a French agent to sell my films that I’d started just for fun,” Sheila explains, “she invited me to make a series of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories for World Television, so I’m sitting in Meldon Avenue in South Shields animating, instead of Disney, this series.”

Sheila hopes her success can inspire the next generation of artists. “It’s an encouragement for other people, to say ‘look you don’t have to be a huge studio, you can do stuff at home and get on with it’.”

Art is essential to our well-being, as we are finding out now in lockdown. It’s about humanity, sharing and self-expression and all the things we know really matter

Some of the animation cels from the Just So Stories are being sold, alongside cels from Best Friends, a series on how to care for your pets. The painted cels are mounted in acrylic clip frames. “You can take the clip frame apart and see how the painting was done. There is a little bit of history there.”

There are also historical sketches and landscape paintings of the local area; Coal Staithes, Mill Dam, oil drums, South Shields Station and tugs on the river. The area around The Customs House has always been a big part of Sheila’s life. “I remember drawing it when there were whalers, do you believe…it was quite romantic in those days!” Sheila has been an advocate for The Customs House as an arts venue from its inception over 25 years ago. “It helps so many people in South Tyneside; actors, musicians…there’s this love for it which you don’t often get at venues; it’s got a heart in it.

Right now Sheila’s working on an animation of Pam Royle of Tyne Tees. “In the 1970’s, whilst I was still teaching, I animated how inside Look North works, with Mike Neville fronting it in those days, and I thought it would be nice to celebrate Pam Royle this year because she is a character like Mike was. She’s human, she’s real. So, it’s how ITV actually works. That’s the whole point of it.”

In terms of technological advancements, animation has come a long way and Sheila isn’t one to be left behind. “In 1991 I got a little Mac and I thought ’hey, this could actually animate’, so I started to play with it.” Sheila was still using film for her paid jobs, but by 1995 her animation became computer based, using a graphics tablet. “What I do now is work with schools,” she tells me. “They work on their iPad and their iPhone. It’s great.”

A key message from Sheila Graber’s exhibition is that “everyone is an artist”. Sheila is passionate about the importance of arts education and believes it should form a much greater part of the national curriculum. “Art is essential to our well-being, as we are finding out now in lockdown. It’s about humanity, sharing and self-expression and all the things we know really matter.

Visit Sheila Graber’s exhibition online at The Customs House website

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