Grandparents are pretty awesome. Some tell us incredible stories; some give us sage advice; some bake us all the cookies. And then there are some who break stereotypes and inspire us to follow in their footsteps. At least that was the case in Debbie Sterling’s family.
Innovation and ingenuity run deep in this family. Debbie’s grandmother, Sterling Sturtevant, was one of the first female art directors of the 1950’s. She was one of a handful of women in senior roles in the male-dominated world of animation at the time.
Sturtevant grew up in Redlands, California. She was a gifted artist from a young age. “She painted all types of things as a kid,” says Sturtevant’s daughter, Amy Sturtevant Casil. “Including big murals and department store displays.”
She attended the University of Redlands from 1940 to 1944 and became the first female editor and publisher of the college newspaper. In 1945, Sturtevant went on to Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) to further her art studies.
Following graduation, Sturtevant got her first job with Disney and soon joined their story department. A few years later, she landed a job with UPA. It was at UPA where Sturtevant’s art career really took off.
Of all the projects Sturtevant worked on, she is best remembered for her work on Mr. Magoo. For anyone who remembers Mr. Magoo, Sturtevant redesigned him into the lovable, near-sighted and iconic character we know today. She modeled him after her husband, a fun fact very few people know, outside of her family.
“The original Magoo didn’t look anything like the one we know today,” says Amy Sturtevant Casil. “She did base the concept on my father. UPA held a contest within the company to redesign the character and her design won.”
Her work at UPA didn’t go unnoticed. She earned several prestigious awards including a Cannes Golden Palms, Academy Awards, and many advertising and animation awards.
In 1954, Sturtevant left UPA and joined Playhouse Pictures. Her designs during her time at Playhouse inspired their animators to stretch the boundaries of what was possible with character shapes, something that was unusual for designed animation at the time.
Towards the end of her life, Sturtevant worked with Charles Schulz on the very first Charlie Brown cartoon. Schulz recognized her talent and even requested “Sterling’s touch” on early Charlie Brown drawings.
Sturtevant died in 1961 at the age of 40. She never got to meet her granddaughter, Debbie. “She has always been a role model for me,” says Debbie. “She died before I was born, but my memories of her exist in her incredible artwork I grew up admiring.”