The Gibbs Sisters are a sibling duo with a passion for telling unconventional and timeless stories about multi-faceted characters.
Shawnee and Shawnelle grew up in Oakland, California writing and illustrating hand-made comic strips which they sold for a quarter around their grade school. Later inspired by literary and animation heroes including sci-fi novelist, Octavia E. Butler, and cartoonists Morrie Turner, Aaron McGruder and Craig McCracken, the sisters began creating Flash cartoons and animation while undergrads at San Francisco State University and wrote and independently produced short films including the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee, “Ravishing Raspberry,”ﾠ the sci-fi animated web series’ “Adopted By Aliens” and later the comedic series “Old Ladies Driving.” Their Tribeca-funded directorial short animation “Sule and the Case of the Tiny Sparks” was cited as a highlight of the New York Kids Fest by the New York Times, was an official selection of the Chicago and Seattle International Children’s Festivals and won Best Animation at the Montreal International Black Film Festival. We spoke to them about their work and being creators.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
Shawnee: We create stories for comic books, film, animation, and television.
Shawnelle: We just create. We create stories and those stories live in all sorts of different formats and forms. We’re storytellers through and through.
BGC: Why do you create?
Shawnee: I feel like I have to, creating is like breathing, it’s like oxygen. When you feel like a creator you will just naturally find ways to do it. If I was doing an accounting job I would find a way to make my accounting creative. I feel like I have to create, no matter what I do it will find a way of coming out.
Shawnelle: It’s something to look forward to each day. There are ups and downs and disappointments but the work, the creating, is always there and it’s always something that I look forward to. To me, creating is like levitating. I could spend hours, not eating, not doing anything, just creating and being in the flow and that gives you life sometimes.
Shawnee: It’s a form of escape too. You can retreat in your own little world. When you create, for me, it’s like taking a little mini-vacation. Yes I’m physically here in L.A., in my office but in my mind, my creative space, I’m light years away. Transcending really.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to do what you do?
Shawnelle: I get inspiration from everywhere but one of our biggest early on is our mom. She taught us how to draw when we were really little. Our mom had a love for art and illustrating at a very young age as she grew up, she was 19 when she was pregnant with us and life came at her pretty early and she had to go into adulthood, mom mode, pretty early. So she funneled and shared her love of illustrating and storytelling, as well. It also became a way we would communicate with each other, we would draw together, draw separately. We would share and grow through our work.
Shawnee: We’re twins, so when we were kids we would speak our own little twin language that our mom recorded. Then as we got older, in our teen years, we discovered Octavia E. Butler. It was like, "Wow someone can write these science fiction stories?" She’s a working writer and winning awards and she exists, I want to be her! Octavia was telling stories about magical Black people and stuff that you only saw on television. Stuff that you were always on the outside of. When we were kids growing up we were influenced by a lot of Spielberg movies and the Saturday morning cartoons but as you watch that stuff you were always watching as an outsider, as Black girls especially. It was all boy-driven, all the protagonists and lead characters were boys going on these adventures. I mean we gobbled them up but as a Black girl, you were aware that you were watching somebody else’s adventure. Octavia confirmed that you can tell any kind of story and it doesn’t have to be grounded in any particular thing. You can make up characters that have power, they can go on adventures and be different. We can write that.
Shawnelle: Even before Octavia, Shawnee and I were always writing stories. We were writing them individually, we were writing them together. The first time we had come together to do something, I remember so strongly, because it was for Black History Month. We had drawn all the historical figures, a whole bunch of notable black people that we had put on a poster, we colored it, I was so proud of it as we were creating it. By the time it was finished, we had won first place. Also, we were selling comics before we know what they were. We were making little stories and comics, that kids would pay us for in elementary school. I believe that storytelling is my calling and a gift that was given to me and we both realized that pretty early on in life.
BGC: How is it working together as business partners and family? How do you keep the two separate? Do you?
Shawnee: We work full time but we work producing television, we watch a lot of footage and craft stories. I’m working on a NatGeo show and Shawnelle is working for the Food Network. Finding ways to hook people. We have similar jobs and we can share expenses or ask for help. Working together as sisters I think it’s great too, we grew up together, we know each other’s strengths. We can’t walk away. There is almost nothing she can say to me at this point, we’ve said so much, we’ve been through it all that we won’t stop working together.
Shawnelle: We’ve learned how to work together. I mean, having to share a room with someone for 17 years and share everything, there are people who will give you one gift as a twin.
Shawnee: We have had to share a name, people won’t even bother. “Hey Twin.”
Shawnelle: We used to write together on the same computer and then we moved to L.A. and started getting more independent.
Shawnee: We finally understood a way to write faster and outline together and then break up the work, so then we would tackle different parts of the story and it was like an assembly line. As we share our work with each other and start compiling things we would say “this doesn’t work,” and we would make it better. Breaking up the workload and working individually, we could then take a look at each other's scenes and revise. It opened up a whole new world for us and now when we work on animated projects with other animators it’s easy for us to divvy up the work. We learned through trial and error on our own and it was a real breakthrough.
Shawnelle: That breakthrough came about 14 years ago. The same thing with The Invention of EJ Whitaker, the story we just finished that is a comic book adventure that we wrote and got crowdfunded.
Shawnee: We initially started by asking for $7,500 and overfunded by $10K which was amazing. It’s a story about an African American college student who wants to be an inventor at the turn of the century, it’s a tough time for African American people, it’s a tough time for women and she has the gall to want to be an inventor. So she creates a pseudonym and she invents a flying machine that causes a stir and everyone wants to know who EJ Whitaker is. We were initially unsure about crowdfunding, is there an audience for a steampunk adventure starring a Black girl? Do people even want to hear this kind of a story? With the response that we got back we thought, wow people are interested.
BGC: Steampunk is such a big movement but you don’t see much diversity in the genre, what has the response been from the general steampunk community?
Shawnee: When we started the Kickstarter, there was a good number of people from the steampunk community that reached out and supported us because they’re just steampunk folks. We didn’t know who we were going to reach but there was a segment of the steampunk community who picked it up and helped us get over that hurdle. Early response so far from the steampunk community has been good.
Shawnelle: We’ve been featured in a quarterly. The book hasn’t been officially been released but I’m excited to hear the response, it’s been pretty warm so far.
Shawnee: There’s a comic book called Girl Genius that’s very popular. The creators were doing a Kickstarter and around the time our Kickstarter was ending. It has a large fanbase and we had a lot of Girl Genius supporters who backed us and supported us. Early response from the steampunk community has been great and we’ve had some interactions and conversations with people overseas. I’m excited to be bringing this story to the steampunk landscape and genre. A lot of the tales have been super British and European, a lot of creators and a lot of new steampunk genre writers have been trying to find ways to infuse their stories with diversity.
BGC: Why is it important to you as Black women to create?
Shawnelle: Every community needs the arts. What would the world be without arts and culture? We can go back to the beginning of time and find something interesting, fascinating and wonderful. I don’t want to live in a world where we are not created and I don’t want to live in a world where Black women are not creating. We do some dope stuff and I want to see it and I want to experience it. As Black people, we have our own way of interpreting the world and looking at it. It’s important because we have our own way of experiencing the world that through our creations people can feel and understand in a way that is interesting, moving and impactful. It helps people look at the world in a different way and see themselves in other people. We have to be at the table and we have to be apart of the discussion.
Shawnee: What’s that saying, “you teach a man to fish and you feed one man and you teach a woman to fish and you feed a whole village or community”. It’s important for all women to create but especially Black women because particularly, in this country, we have been so marginalized as a voice and we are so powerful. How are you going to marginalized such a powerful voice? We are incredible and we have been creating since the beginning of time. If you want to get technical and go back in the annals of history we are the mothers of the civilizations that exists now. We gave birth to humanity and it’s important for us to speak and have a voice at the table. Anytime you suppress a female voice something is off. We are balance. We need a male perspective, we need men to share the stories and women to share their stories and we have balance. Anytime you have a society trying to limit one or the other that is when you are off kilter. It’s important to share so the next generation learns, Octavia put this down for us. We are leaving breadcrumbs I feel, our mothers left breadcrumbs for us to follow.
Shawnelle: One other way, I think it’s important is I’ve really gotten into telling the stories of our ancestors and telling the stories of the people that came before us and if I’m blessed to have children to share those stories with them. That’s an important part of our culture that's been lost through trauma and it’s important for us to weave together the history. Learning more about our own history so that hopefully we are able to pass these on to the next generation and help give them have more grounding and a sense of purpose and history on this earth.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
Shawnee: When we were younger, when I first moved to L.A. I don’t think there was balance. We wanted to do all of this stuff, your 20s are for that, to just go hard if that's what you choose to do. That’s the time that a lot of people start moving up the ranks. It’s all Mary Tyler Moore but now I am trying to find balance. In our television jobs, the production schedules are hectic, there is always an emergency, there are people always panicking. I’m finding meditating is good, not allowing anyone else’s emergency to become your emergency. Balance and harmony, doing that kind of stuff is getting me to a different kind of state than I was when I was younger. Planning time to get away is always good for your creative space because you have something to look forward to and giving yourself time to have a break. Making sure to water all of these things, my home life, my relationship life, my family. Finding balance in it all. Taking time to just breathe, saying my prayers, just being thankful. Thanking God, thanking my ancestors, it’s a blessing to be in this space. Trying to understand that whatever happens, I’m going to be good. If you had asked me a year ago it’d be different but now I’m just trying to come to peace, balance, and harmony.
Shawnelle: I do struggle with balance in terms of trying to make sure the wheels are turning at all times and making sure not to get stuck in one direction or the other. When you’re really passionate about what you’re doing, also having a full-time job, nourishing great friendships and a great relationship, it gets a little tough. Sometimes you just have to say “Ok, I’m out of balance today.”
Shawnee: Sometimes you’re forced out of balance and you have to say no I’m done.
Shawnelle: That’s the truth for younger women coming into adulthood and feeling like everything has to be perfect. Sometimes it’s not going to be perfectly balanced, things get out of whack and you have to be ok and give yourself a path to forgiveness and be ok with the fact that some things are beyond your control.
Shawnee: Realizing currently things are a little crazy but in a few days I’m going to shift it and I’m going to get myself back to peace. I know I can get myself back to center and I can stay on track and move forward.
BGC: Do you have any advice for young creators/ones just starting?
Shawnee: Follow your creative heart and do the work that speaks to you. Tell the stories or create the projects, do the things that are motivating you. Don’t let fear get in your way, remove the fear of what you’re creating, how the public will respond, what your family and friends may think, don’t worry about it. Just get it out there. Don’t be deterred by other people’s thoughts. Don’t change your voice for anybody, trust your voice and create the work as you see it. If you’re coming from a pure place, something is going to touch somebody.
Shawnelle: Just don’t be afraid. Sometimes it’s good to get in the cave and do the work and then come out and see the sun. Sometimes we can get carried away and forget about the life that needs to be lived. I think it’s important to get out and experience things. Get out there and ask questions, I just stopped being embarrassed about asking questions because all you can get is answers. Never hold your tongue on questions, especially if you’re new to something.
Shawnee: Yes, find mentors. Find people who you know are doing things similar to what you want to do and make those people your allies. People who are seasoned love taking people under their wings. Never be afraid to speak up for what you want to do.
BGC: Do you have any future projects that you’re thinking about working on?
Shawnee: We are currently working on the second issue of The Invention of EJ Whitaker. We are also currently in discussion with an author or producer for a children's animated series.
Shawnelle: And then we have a bunch of ideals in a pile, in our phones, and in our heads.