A city full of characters

Artist Pete McKee is preparing for his second – and last – exhibition dedicated to his beloved home city. Paul Jeeves met him.

Work by Sheffield Artist Pete McKee (below).
Work by Sheffield Artist Pete McKee (below).

STUCK on the wall of Pete McKee’s studio in a former 19th-century mill in Sheffield are pieces of paper with words jotted on them.

Simple phrases which give a hint of what inspires his art – cutlery, steelworker, morning paper, Commando comic, Elvis.

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They are the result of another brainstorming session to find the latest themes for what have emerged as some of the most sought-after pieces of pop art currently on the market. Which for someone with no formal art qualification and a palette of just 20 colours, is no mean feat.

Sheffield artist Pete McKee

Yet simplicity is the essence of Pete McKee’s art. After all, most of his characters don’t even have a pair of eyes – just a straight black line indicating where their eyebrows run.

“I am telling stories that are universal, and I would hope that people can relate to them,” he says. “It is about catching the emotion, whether it be happiness or sadness – they are the two main emotions that everyone feels. It is about getting a connection. The features are only hinted at on my paintings, it gives people the chance to imagine that it is their grandma or their dad. It is about stirring the memories and allowing them to recall the people close to them.”

As a stamp of approval, his muses are among his most ardent fans – Noel Gallagher has commissioned him for a series of posters, Sheffield’s own Arctic Monkeys and Richard Hawley sing his praises.His paintings are borne out of a life-long love of comic books, the very mention of which brings out an infectious childlike smile on the face of 47-year-old McKee.

There are pages from a 1985 edition of The Beano pinned on a wall in his studio, and on a bookshelf are copies of Hergé’s Tintin, another of his huge inspirations, alongside a book charting the 100 best albums of all time, an indication of another passion – music. Tins of Dulux emulsion are roughly stacked on a table, the paint of choice that McKee is able to have mixed to his specifications – pub seat red, British sea, old lady’s hair.

Scattered around the studio are pieces of art for McKee’s forthcoming exhibition, The Joy of Sheff, only his second but last show dedicated to his home city after 22 Views of Sheffield was staged in 2008.

For anyone who grew up in Sheffield, it is a memory stir of some of the Steel City’s most famous – and best-loved – landmarks. There is an outline of a young boy gazing up at Redgates, once the second largest toy shop in the country, and a half-finished work with the instantly recognisable features of Jarvis Cocker in front of the Goodwin Fountain in Fargate.

The exhibition will feature 40 pieces of work when it is staged for one day only on May 18 at The Blue Shed in Sheffield, with 10 more still to be painted on the 12mm-thick MDF which McKee religiously uses for his art.

He says: “This exhibition is for the people of Sheffield, looking at the past glories and the present hopes. It is a celebration of the city. I would like to think that anyone from outside of Sheffield would be able to understand what it is about the city that is so appealing and relate to some of the subjects that come through in my paintings.

“In the 1960s and 1970s it was a smoky, dirty city with a lot of smells that were not always pleasant. But there has been a re-birth at least culturally, and the city has dragged itself up by its bootstraps.”

Born in Sheffield in 1966, it was the year of England’s World Cup victory that also saw his beloved Sheffield Wednesday lose the FA Cup final to Everton. He is married to his wife of 22 years, Jane, who has two sons, Chris and Tom, from a previous relationship. She dabbles in art, although more abstract work in the style of Jackson Pollock.

The couple’s 21-year-old son, Charley, plays with his father in a ukulele band, the Everly Pregnant Brothers. An enjoyable distraction from McKee’s art, the band has nonetheless played to crowds of 5,000 at Sheffield’s Tramlines Festival and sold out the city’s Lyceum. The quiff that McKee styles his hair into hints at a love of the 1950s, but it is a tribute to one of his musical heroes, Edwyn Collins, the lead singer of Orange Juice.

McKee grew up in the East End of the city, with his older brothers, Ian and Stuart, and elder sister, Anne. They suffered the loss of their mother, Marjorie, when McKee was just eight but she often features as one of the women in his paintings, captured from his memories of trips to Castle Market and the lido in Millhouses Park.

His father, Frank, who passed away 20 years ago, worked in the steelworks and performed in clubs and bars on the piano, although McKee never got to hear him play as he lost a finger in an industrial accident.

But artistic talent was inherited from his father, who was always doodling in the margins of newspapers. The young McKee started drawing caricatures of famous faces such as Ted Heath as he tried to impress his father.

He studied at Rowlinson Comprehensive School, but freely admits academia was not for him and left in the first year of sixth form. “I chose all the subjects that I thought were easiest, but I really wasn’t that focused at all. I was playing three card brag in the sixth form common room with three mates when one of my teachers came in and asked me what I was doing here.

“He didn’t mean in the common room, he meant in the sixth form, and that was when I realised it wasn’t for me.”

His brother, Stuart, got him an interview at a factory and he landed a job preparing pre-moulded doors by popping air bubbles and plugging the holes with wood filler.

“They obviously spotted my artistic ability as I got a promotion to become a paint sprayer.”

His wage packets gave McKee the chance to buy a keyboard and with a few rudimentary chords learnt, he joined a band, The Miami Dolphins, influenced by the York-born James Bond composer, John Barry. He managed to get a job at the HMV store in Sheffield, which was a dream come true. “It might have only been selling other people’s records,” McKee says. “But it was still in the music industry.”

He left to go to art college but his application was never accepted, and a spell as a postman was followed by a job working the early shift at Tesco.

Cartoons he sent on spec to the Sheffield Telegraph nearly 20 years ago landed him a weekly strip which he still does today, but he knew he wanted a full-time job dedicated to art. A picture of a petrol pump in one of Hergé’s Tintin books was to be the unlikely Eureka moment – “the way it was drawn just captured my imagination”. The distinctive McKee style was born and he managed to get his first exhibitions in December 2005 at The Washington and then The Forum bars in Sheffield.

“I was literally praying that I would sell a painting, as we were so skint. Thankfully I did, and those exhibitions pretty much saved Christmas that year.”

Then in 2010, his big break arrived.

He sent a print of one of his works, A Good Education, depicting a young lad with a guitar in his bedroom playing along to The Beatles album Revolver, to Noel Gallagher. He asked McKee to design his own take on a poster of a legendary Brighton gig that Oasis played in 1994.

Commissions from Clarks to design a limited edition range of Desert boots and an exhibition at fashion designer Paul Smith’s store in Tokyo followed.

McKee has also drawn posters to raise funds for charities including War Child and the Teenage Cancer Trust, and is the patron of Sheffield Children Hospital’s Artfelt project. His latest charity poster, for Noel Gallagher’s gig at the Royal Albert Hall in March for the Teenage Cancer Trust, sold out in less than five minutes.

McKee opened his store-cum-gallery, A Month of Sundays, in Sheffield’s Hunters Bar district in June 2010, where prints are sold for £35 and original works for up to £3,000. He rents a space in a former industrial mill complex dating from the late 1800s for his art studio, and it is here that he is preparing for The Joy of Sheff exhibition.

It may only be a day-long show, but McKee is planning to leave a lasting impression with a huge mural in Sheffield to promote the event, which he hopes will remain for years to come.

He said: “Some of the artwork in the exhibition is quite tongue in cheek and not too poignant. It does look at past glories, and laments what has been lost. But there is a good deal of humour. It dawned on me that we all need a laugh at the moment. It really is tough times, and people are up against it financially.

“This is about celebrating Sheffield’s humour. It is a hard-working city, and people find humour in often the direst situations. Whether it was the steelworks or the mines, there was always banter.”

While the exhibition will be a celebration, it will also prove to be a landmark in McKee’s career.

“This will be the last exhibition I do 
about Sheffield. I will find it difficult coming up with another 20 or 30 ideas, 
as much as I love the city. But it is an absolute blessing that I can earn a living out of art. It is something I feel very privileged about.”

His home city has served him well but McKee realises it is time to look to new inspiration, although he shouldn’t have to look too far from his wide range of interests. A celebrated artist, long-standing cartoonist, comic book aficionado, ardent football supporter, obsessive music fan and ukulele player. But above all, a Sheffielder.

Admission to The Joy of Sheff exhibition on May 18 at The Blue Shed in Sheffield is free. For more information call 0114 263 1000 or visit www.petemckee.com.