An artist’s life in pictures

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IT started off, says Sheila Graber, as a way of cataloguing all the pictures she had.

But from a painting of Colley’s Farm at Westoe, which as a child she’d pass on the way to school, she found herself embarking on an autobiographical journey that also pays homage to her home town.

The finished book, My Tyneside, is a beautiful evocation of places the artist and award-winning animator grew up with in South Shields and its hinterland – the river and the Mill Dam in the damson colours of evening, the Town Hall against a luminous skyline.

It traces her life from her early days in Lavington Road, to Pollard Street and Vespasian Avenue, and thence to a flat above the pilot office on the Lawe, where her father, Captain George Graber, was Pilot Master.

It was he who answered an advertisement in the Shields Gazette for a second-hand box of oil paints for his then-13-year-old daughter.

One of her first paintings – executed from life while sat on the running board of her dad’s “battered” Ford 8 – was of Jarrow Slake. It became her mother’s favourite painting.

From the pilot office, she could look out over the fish quay at North Shields, which she also painted. A number of pictures and drawings in the book are of the river: tug boats, cranes, coal staithes.

She’d hone her skills drawing familiar places, like the North Marine Park; her parents, the family pets, even herself: her self-portraits, from the age of 11, are almost inadvertent chapter headings.

From South Shields Girls’ Grammar School, she went to Sunderland College of Art and became an art teacher, first at Stanhope Road Secondary School, where she encouraged the children to draw with nibs made from seagull feathers.

By the mid-1960s, she was teaching at her alma mater, the Girls’ High School.

Eventually, via marriage and divorce, she and her mother settled in Meldon Avenue, where she began experimenting with the animation techniques that would one day win her some of the industry’s highest accolades.

The death of her mother, in 1991, hit her hard.

In that respect she does not shrink, in the book, from revisiting personal and sometimes difficult areas of her life, not least the wrenching loss of her parents and the discovery, after her mother’s death, that she had been adopted.

She had not been born in South Shields, as she thought, but in Edinburgh. Suddenly, 50 years of always feeling just that little bit different made sense.

“The thing is, though, all the family knew,” she said, speaking from what is now her home in Ireland.

Yet she could feel no reproach.

“It just suddenly made sense of a lot of things, why I’d always had a feeling of being outside looking in, which apparently, when you talk to those involved in adoption, is quite common.”

Subsequent inquiries revealed that her birth mother had been a teacher – just as Sheila herself was for many years. She discovered a half-sister she never knew she had.

“But I didn’t pursue it further. I had already had the best parents I could have had, who let me be the person I was. My only regret now is not having been able to say to my mam that it didn’t matter.”

The pictures from this period reflect that time: a dark garden in 1991, and a garden with roses in 1993, by which time she had acquired two cats, a popular motif now in her work.

She brings retrospective humour to that period now, writing: “In earlier times I’d have been burned as a witch. Wearing black, walking two cats out at night, into the idea of herbalism, even a couple of moles on my face. I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

But no. The real witchcraft, the magic, is in the paintings in this book: pictures of Westoe Village saturated with sunlight; the cool timelessness of Durham Cathedral in winter; the salt-bleached colours of Marsden Bay.

Written contributions from friends such as Customs House director Ray Spencer enhance the rootedness of Tyneside in her own and others’ lives. Since 2004, she has lived in the Irish Republic – something to do, she reckons, with having seen Tommy Steele in Finian’s Rainbow. But her house is called Sandancer.

She is grateful, she says, for her business manager Jen Miller’s encouragement to pursue the book from what had originally been just a desire to see what she had actually accumulated over a 60-year creative career.

Now 72, she has taken-up online publishing, e-books like The Twelve Days of Christmas, for instance, which comprises images from the popular carol which she first did as Christmas decorations for King George Comprehensive School where she was Head of Art in the mid-1970s; also Dusty’s Diary, about a feral cat family.

As for her next project, well she’s thinking of something to do with art history, but it’s open-ended.

Who knows where continuing exploration of her remarkable back catalogue may take her?

n My Tyneside: A Personal Journey, by Sheila Graber, is published in paperback by Quizicat Productions, price £8, available through www.Amazon.co.uk

n Book Images can also be downloaded at a small charge. Visit www.facebook.com/QuizicatProductions