Ekaterina Sheath is a freelance illustrator based in Leeds. Through community engagement, on-location drawing and research, she shares hidden stories and transforms local spaces into cultural assets.

Working with social organisations Sheath brings engaging and educational illustrations to communities. She graduated from BA (Hons) Illustration in 2021, was awarded a six-month Leeds Arts University residency at Duke Studios in 2022 and decided to stay on in the co-working space once her residency had ended.

Ekaterina Sheath has been shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards 2022 for the Site Specific Category, featured in Creative Boom as one of the Most Exciting Illustrators to Follow in 2022 and in the Association of Illustrators 10 UK Illustration Graduates to Watch in 2021. Her clients include Historic England, Leeds City Council, Wakefield Council, Leeds Bid and the Canal and River Trust.

We started off by asking her where her inspiration comes from:

“The relationship between history, location and community is a constant source of inspiration in my work” she said, continuing “I love delving into archives, sifting through libraries and connecting with local people. Recently I have been working on a commission with Craven Museum, focusing on their ephemera collection. I spent days uncovering hidden stories; those of love, war, childhood and working life. I use old photographs as references, and oral histories to spark ideas.

Image: Ekaterina Sheath, Wakefield comission, Historic England and Wakefield Council, 2022. 

Image: Ekaterina Sheath, Leeds city centre. 

Stepping back to the present day, I draw inspiration from the people that make up our communities now. People are fascinating! I can sit for hours sketching on a busy street. Often I see things I could never have come up with; sausage dogs wearing t-shirts, a kid with an ice cream bigger than his head, stunning outfits and intricate tattoos… People are everywhere, so I have inspiration on every corner, all day, every day.

Intertwined between the people I often use abstract shapes and patterns. These are inspired by wandering the specific site and picking up details from surrounding architecture and local businesses. Each project is unique and bespoke to its location.”

When Sheath draws people, she does so from life, on this process she says; “I will head out with my sketchbook, find a bench and start documenting the passers-by. I use this as a way to push against my own implicit bias and further develop representation in my illustrations.”

She goes on to say “A core value in my work is representation: celebrating diversity and equality. It is important to me to depict our vibrant multicultural community.”

Expanding on her process she says: “I then take these rough sketches back to the studio and digitally rework them. When I started university I never considered working digitally, but because my work is often printed on such a large scale it became a necessity to use Illustrator.

On the complete flip side, I often paint murals by hand. So instead of heading back to my desk and Wacom, I head out with pots of paint wearing some very messy work clothes. I love painting murals! Passers-by often stop to chat with me. These conversations are what make public realm projects special. Luxury doughnuts, the odd beer, many cups of tea, drivers honking horns and waving… the community has always made me feel welcome.”

Image: Ekaterina Sheath, New Pavilion, Leeds.  

Which projects is she is most proud of?

“The New Pavilion project holds a special place in my heart. Leeds City Council commissioned me to design fifty-one window panels to bring life to the New Pavilion. It was the first large-scale commission I had ever received. I was in my third year at the time and I remember just being so surprised and excited when I won the open call, but also terrified! I had never done anything like it but the tutors and Careers Department were a huge help.

The project focused on this gorgeous old building from 1911. Once at the heart of the Morley community, the building now stands abandoned. Over its life, it has transformed from a theatre to a cinema, a bingo hall to a techno club. The place whispers of couples falling in love, cheeky children tucking into ice cream, and clubbers’ rowdy dancing. While the building awaits a new future, we transformed the crumbling boarded windows with illustrations.

Fueled by an interest in heritage and oral storytelling, I reached out to local people. A ripped cinema ticket, fish and chips after a cowboy film, a little child’s head peeping at Grandma’s bingo card – all are memories shared by the community. By depicting their own words and using local archives, I wanted to bring the building’s history back to life.

This was when everything fell into place for me. Throughout the year I began to collect terms that resonated with me; public realm, community, representation, situational illustration, heritage, contemporary illustration, and street art. I felt so excited and inspired by the sector I could now see my work in.”

Image: Ekaterina Sheath, Wakefield commission, Banners, Historic England and Wakefield Council, 2022. 

And the project under taken during her Leeds Arts University Duke Studios graduate residency? 

“I had the opportunity to work on a really exciting project commissioned by Historic England and Wakefield Council, as part of the Upper Westgate Heritage Action Zone. There were two themes we focused on. First, I created a series of artworks inspired by the area’s textile past. Delving into Wakefield Museum’s collections I was fascinated by the fabric samples and tools I found there.

The illustrations I created are a bespoke interpretation of textiles from a linen book (originating from late Georgian Wakefield) kept in the collection at Wakefield Museum. Shapes and patterns from Westgate’s grade-listed buildings can be seen intertwined into the work. These are now exhibited on a series of five lamppost banners in Wakefield.

The second project was inspired by public engagement sessions and research undertaken by Wakefield’s Historical Society and Civic Society. Exhibited across five locations, the temporary outdoor trail tells of a thriving co-operative, a theatre full of costumes, an escaped bear or a famous local band. I had such a great time researching and reading about all the stories hidden behind each building.

The commissions sought to encourage visitors and residents to re-imagine and engage in their local heritage as they walk from one end of the high street to the next. Installed at varying heights the projects prompt visitors to ‘look up’ —drawing their attention to Westgate’s historic architecture.

It was a dream commission to work on and even more exciting to see all thirty-two illustrations installed across Westgate!"

Image: Ekaterina Sheath, Wakefield comission, Historic England and Wakefield Council, 2022. 

Image: Ekaterina Sheath, Craven Museum 

During the residency, Sheath applied for an open call from Skipton Town Hall and Craven Museum and was then commissioned to illustrate and curate an exhibition responding to their collection under the theme of ‘interpretation.’

“I proposed an exhibition that focused on Craven Museum’s ephemera collection and looked to challenge our interpretation of an item’s ‘value’.

Printed pamphlets, posters, tickets, and receipts can tell stories of social dances, rationing, anti-nuclear protests, and love. As visitors walked through the exhibition I hoped to challenge their understanding of what a printed item’s value means and how that might develop over time. For example, a ticket that was once deemed rubbish or throw-away now has a wealth of stories to tell. Through this, I wanted to encourage an open conversation on how we perceive story-telling and challenge our interpretations of what has ‘historic importance.’

I really enjoyed collaborating with the museum’s team, learning how to curate an exhibition, and of course, spending hours and hours pouring over the ephemera collection. I wish I had years to spend on that project…”

When asked how the residency and co-working space has benefited her, Sheath says “Working at home was horrible! I was struggling to separate my working and personal life, and I was lonely after the social studios at Leeds Arts University. Duke Studios has been the perfect space to develop my practice, I have been able to pour myself into my work and push myself to new levels. It is a really friendly and welcoming place, I have met so many new people.

My days change every day! For example, last week I was camping in the middle of a field in Cambridge waking up to paint a live mural at the We Out Here Festival. Before that, I was exploring Halifax for a commission with the NHS. Today I am visiting a local school to evaluate a new mural site and next week I am off to film an interview for the Skipton exhibition. That is the joy of my job, every day is different, and I thrive off of the variety. Being surrounded by other freelancers has been helpful. Sometimes I find myself dealing with difficult situations or a tricky client, and it has been really useful to reach out to those around me for support and advice.

Duke Studios transformed my experience of freelancing. I am so happy I now have a permanent desk there - I just didn’t want to leave!”

Image: Ekaterina Sheath, Communicolour mural for Leeds Schools, in association with Wellspring Academy Trust. 

On future projects she says, “I am currently working on a commission with the South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The project is focused on making information packs and health check invitations more approachable for people with severe mental illness. On average people living with SMI die 15-20 years younger, and these packs are one of the tools to counter that.

The team and I worked together to create twenty illustrations, inspired by the local area and the idea of guiding a friend through the process. By rewriting the invitations and including my illustrations on envelopes and information packs, we hope to make the support available more accessible and personable.

I am also working with Communicolour (in association with Wellspring Academy Trust) to develop a series of outdoor murals for Leeds-based schools. The project intends to transform dull grey spaces into exciting and interactive environments that capture children's imaginations and spark creative learning and play. So far we have installed two large-scale murals and have more planned for next year.

But who knows what will crop up next... what new adventure is awaiting!”