RIGHT from the start, growing up on the North-East coast, Sheila Graber was always “messing about”. Whether it was drawing with chalk on slate, or fiddling with blobs of plasticine, home was where the art was.

These days, 78-years-young and still living in her home town of South Shields, she’s still messing about: forever creating things, and making them move in wonderful ways.

Sheila is an award-winning artist and animator. Paddington Bear and Rudyard Kipling feature on her CV, and yet she remains unassuming and self-deprecating. She’d be the last to describe herself as a North-East treasure but that’s certainly what she is.

Still bursting with creative energy, it was a joy to spend a morning in the studio that doubles as a bedroom in her quiet bungalow, as she works towards her latest project, an exhibition called “Life Begins at 80”.

Due to be staged at the South Shields Museum and Art Gallery, and Customs House, in the summer of 2020, it will be a fascinating reflection of a lifetime enriched by art – and what an extraordinary life it has been.

Sheila was born in Edinburgh but was 51 before she found out she’d been adopted as a baby. Her birth mother, a music teacher, became pregnant at a young age but was unable to cope, so Sheila was brought up by a couple in South Shields: Merchant Navy Captain George Graber and his wife Doris.

The South Tyneside town was to become Sheila’s artistic inspiration, and her outpouring of creative works, including stunning self-portraits, began from a young age. In 1951, her first piece of homework set by her art teacher was to “paint something on the way to school”. Colley’s Farm became Sheila’s subject and the painting is the starting point for the body of work that chronicles her life.

She’s an avid collector – she still has the the second-hand paint-box she was given on her 13th birthday – and, as we talk, she flicks through the chronological archive of paintings and animations on her computer. She is instinctively telling her story through pictures and movement, just as she has told so many other stories during her career.

Art and science were her passions while studying at Shields Grammar School for Girls. She had ambitions to be a doctor – “I just wanted to heal people” – but art proved to be an irresistible draw. She went to Sunderland College of Art, then the Birmingham School for Training Art Teachers, and got her first job teaching art at Stanhope Road Secondary School in South Shields.

There was even creativity in the way she engaged disruptive children. In those days, many teachers would have reached for the cane, but Sheila preferred to go down to the beach to collect seagull feathers to be made into quills for drawing a storm scene. With Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background, even the more reluctant pupils were hooked.

Her teaching career progressed and she ended up as head of creative studies at King George Comprehensive.

Then, in 1971, she bought a Super 8 camera to take holiday pictures and that led to her discovering the magic of animation. She started a cine club after school and it became hugely popular.

“Even though it took three weeks for the films to be developed, the kids were riveted. They didn’t want to go home,” she recalls.

Word spread of the value of animation as a way of learning. The Schools Council seized upon it as a national project and Sheila had her pupils animating everything they were covering in other lessons: how the heart beats in science; how to make apple pie in cookery; how to do the long-jump in PE.

The awards started coming and Sheila’s reputation grew. In 1977, she took a call from a French television agent called Nicole Jouve and a deal was struck for short films, created by Sheila, to be distributed worldwide. Three years on, it led to her being asked to animate Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, which went out in 25 countries. Sheila had hit the big time and had to leave teaching.

An even bigger break came when she went to an arts festival in Greece and met one of the world’s greatest animators, Alison de Vere, whose credits include The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cartoon and the Tetley Tea Folk.

A friendship was forged and it was through Alison that Sheila heard about a vacancy at Filmfair, which was about to produce Paddington specials for children’s TV. Sheila landed the job and went on to animate three specials.

“Paddington is always what gets mentioned but, in truth, it was only a small part of my career,” says Sheila. “Someone else did the drawings and my job was top make them move.”

In 1985, she was asked to work part-time for South Tyneside Local Education Authority, advising on art, so was again able to combine education with making films.

The advent of computers opened up a whole new world of possibilities and, in 2004, she was presented with a Lifetime of Achievement Award by the Royal Television Society.

Today, she remains tirelessly creative. She teaches animation at Sunderland University and is busy preparing for the Life Begins at 80 exhibition, which will feature her own work and that of artists she has been associated with over the years.

Its main aim is “to show that anyone is an artist in their own way and, by creating something truly personal in any form, it can give meaning and fulfilment to life”.

In the meantime, Sheila will continue “messing about”. The chalk-slate is now an iPad, but there are still blobs of plasticine on a table in the corner of her studio where her friend Jen’s six-year-old grandson, Harry, is encouraged to experiment.

Sheila Graber, artist, animator, teacher, and treasure, is still making the world move