Sheldon Cohen is in his element. It’s half an hour after the last bell at St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Montreal has sent the kids home to eat Pizza Pops in front of the tube. But two dozen of them are sticking around, cramming the school’s slipshod art room and watching Sheldon like kittens watching a can opener.
Sheldon lopes to one end of the blackboard, raises his chalk and, with a quick flourish, draws a circle. The kids, their tongues bit in concentration, copy his movements in sketchbooks open at their desks. Sheldon waits, lets them finish, then draws two crosshairs inside the shape. “What are these, again?” he calls out. “GUIDELINES!” the kids yell in near unison. He draws two olives above the horizontal line, and shades everything but the pimentos. The kids do the same. He distends the circle with two gentle lumps (one on each side). He adds two bumps on top and slaps a floppy pebble dead centre. The changes are simple, but the picture is completely transformed. What began as plain geometry has become a character fans of A.A. Milne or Walt Disney would have no trouble incriminating in a lineup. A yawning semicircle from the pebble (now obviously a nose) to the edge of one of the guidelines completes the incarnation. “Anyone know who it is yet?” Sheldon asks. A dozen hands shoot up, along with cries of “Oh! Oh!” and “I do!”
“Don’t yell it out,” Sheldon warns, “Raise your hand if you know it.” One kid can’t help himself: “Winnie the Pooh!” he shouts.
“You need a poo?” Sheldon fires back. “Well go ahead.” The kids cackle.
It’s one thing Sheldon has learned in his 16 years running Sheltoons, a kind of School of Rock for cartooning: kids love toilet gags. “You have to keep it funny,” he says of his professorial tack. “When we work on doing cartoons, I’m almost a cartoon myself with them. I want to keep them amused. A child who’s not as good as he wants to be might be a little intimidated by drawing. You have to explain to kids that there are all types of cartoonists — that it’s the humour in it that makes the cartoon.”
There’s no denying Sheldon has a sense of humour. He did, after all, quit his day job managing a pharmacy in Montreal to wax scatological with a roomful of 10-year-olds. He’d always been cartooning, working part-time for an animation company when he wasn’t minding the drugstore. One summer, he landed a job tooning with kids at a camp in Montreal. The sessions went so well, he decided to set up his own operation. He rented a small office and began offering private classes. When 90 kids overran the tiny space his first month in business, he knew he was on to something. “They take drawing and painting at school, but cartooning is a good base to learn how to draw. You work a little bit with light, shadow, and you can practise with your notepad at home, while you’re watching TV.”
Today, there are Sheltoons programs in almost 300 schools across Ontario and Quebec (roughly 60 in Toronto), as well as at camps and community centres, even the occasional birthday party. He has 50 instructors, mostly animators and illustrators, but still runs many of the Montreal classes himself. “I love teaching kids,” the 43-year-old says. “They’re like sponges… or Sponge Bobs? They soak up everything you tell them.”
Well, almost everything. Back at St. Joe’s, Sheldon has another character ready. The kids, though, have other plans.
“I don’t wanna draw the Powerpuff Girls,” one boy whines.
“Why not?” Sheldon asks him.
“They’re for girls.”
“Yeah,” another chimes. The girls in the class roll their eyes.
“They’re not for girls,” Sheldon says. “I like them. And if you want to learn to draw, you have to know different styles.” Still, he submits, and gives the kids a second choice — Bubbles on one side of the board and Spider-man on the other. He has an extensive catalogue (and a flawless memory); his own characters — from skateboarding cats to oddly Mandarin aliens — and, of course, a full arsenal of TV and film icons, which he updates yearly. While Scooby-Doo and Mickey Mouse still ring kids’ bells, increasingly they clamour for Yu-Gi-Oh and other Asian fare. “When I started,” Sheldon says, “they were into drawing Roger Rabbit and the Ninja Turtles. Every second year there’s always something different. From Roger Rabbit to the Simpsons to Pokémon and now Yu-Gi-Oh and Neo Pets.” Each character is dissected into the same basic shapes, with minor variations. It only takes a few lines to turn Batman into Tweety Bird. “I show them enough easy things — like drawing a dinosaur breathing fire — that makes them surprised at what they can do. I tell kids, if you can write the alphabet — draw circles, squares, triangles — you can draw anything.”
To learn more about Sheltoons, including how to be an instructor, call 800-476-6910, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.