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The Return of the Nutty Illustrator

Sheldon Rooney’s ‘nutty illustrator’ work is tough to crack. The self-taught, 38-year-old father, cook and St. Catharines artist creates work that varies in scope and dimensions, drawing influences from his childhood, his love of lines, the Bohemian Grove in San Francisco and his fear of pretty blonde ladies – his work is playful, serious and spirited all at the same time.

Growing up in a hockey family in Edmonton, Rooney cut his teeth emulating images from his favourite hockey cards.

“We were such a sports family that art was never really pushed or encouraged. Wait, I wouldn’t say we weren’t encouraged, but all of our time was taken up from travel hockey. It was almost sneaky, because it was pucks and that was it,” he explained.

“By dad was expecting my brother and I to be the Rooney brothers, and my brother actually ended up playing 15 years of hockey in Denmark and Germany.”

At 16 he bought his first guitar, and from there hockey kind of fizzled out of his life. Rooney is the kind of guy who can never sit still, never maintaining a specific art form or style, consistently moving from one thing to the next.

“I would play music for six months and then put it down, but then I would get sick of it and work on my art. Then I’d stop and write a lot. It has always been a cycle for me,” he said. “Once I’m exhausted on something the other things pick up again and seem fresh.”

You can see it in his work, which varies from recreations of childhood buttons, to playful comic images of toys — “the mail-lady thought I was insane because of the amount of small mail I received everyday” — to his pyrography, and his intricate drawings (cover/left).

His exhibition, taking place from May 19-June 2 at the Niagara Artists Centre [NAC] in St. Catharines, “tries to show as many aspects as to what I’m in to with my art.”

His buttons “are a preservation of the old days, there is not one past ’89, they’re important, the messages are lost now. Badges taught kids things.”

His pyrography inspired by the Bohemian Grove comes from a dark time in his life – “I dated this girl who was way too young for me and she spun my head around, so I did nothing but made art, tears and everything you can think of went into those works.”

His vivid, fluorescent and intricate drawings came from his addiction to drawing lines, “the hair was what drew me into them. I didn’t go to school. I’m not a skilled painter. I just fell in love with the line-drawing thing,” he explained. “They’re just supposed to take you somewhere. I mostly just like making stuff that people want to look at.”

Rooney has been off the grid for nearly 10 years. He has shown work in the past at the NAC and the now defunct CRAM in the past, and he used to play in the bands Records for Disposal and Legendary Weapons.

“I went through a pretty horrible custody battle a while back. I never thought I’d have kids, but all I could think about was him,” he said. “Everything had to shut down. I didn’t go out, I dropped off the face of the Earth. I used to have shows every six months, I was pumping pieces out every six months. But, I had to fight for this boy. As he got older and everything got worked out, the skies cleared.”

Now with a sense of vibrancy and enthusiasm, Rooney is gearing up for his first show in nearly 10 years.

“Right now I’m feeling so good. It’s been a long battle, and its all just coming out of my brain.”

The opening reception for Sheldon Rooney as The Nutty Illustrator takes place at the Niagara Artists Centre on May 26 at 5:30pm.

Written by Chris Illich