Decades after Sheila Cooper Collins became famous for making paper with wild animal dung, the renowned multimedia artist continues to turn natural subjects into attention-grabbing art. Most recently, her watercolour rendering of jellyfish decorates stamps commissioned by the South African Post Office.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS Lisa Leslie
The area was in the grip of a relentless heat wave when South visited artist Sheila Cooper Collins’ Sedgefield Island home, but sitting in her cool, leafy garden, it soon became clear this ‘natural woman’ had found a slice of paradise that suits her perfectly.
Sheila moved to the property in 1992 after relocating from KwaZulu-Natal. In keeping with her deep love for nature, which is evident in her work, her garden plays home to a family of spotted eagle owls, various bird species and many angulate tortoises.
This oneness with nature, and more specifically her ability to accurately portray its detail, has made her one of South Africa’s most respected nature and wildlife artists. It also resulted in her second commission for a stamp sheet and first day covers for the South African Post Office. The assignment last year included a stamp sheet depicting several of the jellyfish species found along the South African coastline as well as two first day covers of the bluebottle and the ‘By-the-wind-sailor’.
“Designing the sheet set, rather than individual stamps, was particularly challenging as the layout and design had to be scientifically accurate in terms of sizes and the placement of each species according to the depth at which they occur in nature. At the same time it had to be aesthetically pleasing to appeal to the buying public.”
Assisted by Professor Mark Gibbons from the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, it took Sheila four months to research, design and paint the detailed and colourful illustrations of ten of these species.
This was Sheila’s second commission from the South African Post Office, the first being a series of stamps produced to commemorate National Marine Day in 2001, for which she used silk dyes and watercolours to depict the vibrant colours of South Africa’s marine life. The result was an award-winning set of stamps.
Her artistic path was set in the 70s when, while studying Fine Arts at the University of Witwatersrand, she did illustrations for world-renowned palaeontologists and archaeologists Professor Raymond Dart and Phillip Tobias. “This experience proved invaluable as I learnt to depict subjects with incredible attention to detail.” Specialising in fauna and flora, she has exhibited widely at one-man and group exhibitions in South Africa and abroad since 1979 and continues to do so.
In the 1980s Sheila started recycling her ‘reject’ paintings on expensive watercolour paper into handmade papers and added chopped grasses to the pulp for interest and texture. A visit to the Umfolozi Game Reserve inspired the now famous dung papers – the undigested fibre in rhino dung was perfect for this purpose.
Her well-publicised idea of adding dung fibres to handmade paper were met with a range of interesting responses but she, along with her sons Mark and John Collins, continued to experiment with sanitised dung of various other species, including elephant, kudu and even zebra, each of which produced a very different look and feel.
Once the paper-making was perfected, Mark suggested she print some of her wildlife paintings on it, leading to another journey of trial and error. They eventually developed a unique process of printing onto handmade paper and Sheila’s printed editions and cards went on to receive wide acclaim. The family developed Scarab Paper, a successful business for many years before selling it in 2003.
These days, when she is not teaching others to paint, Sheila spends her time immersed in a wide range of artistic endeavours. She has made a series of three-dimensional busts representing indigenous African people using handmade paper pulp and continues to paint with colour dyes onto silk.
Using sheets from one of her old printing presses, Sheila is once again on the experimental path, painting and etching onto aluminium. “It’s tricky because there is no control over the manner in which the varnish covers the aluminium, but the different effects that can be achieved with diverse techniques are fascinating. Life is too short for all the exciting, fun and creative journeys waiting to be explored.”
CONTACT Sheila Cooper Collins 044 343 1828 and 082 411 0948