After his last exhibition two years ago, Sheffield artist Pete McKee took a little time to reflect – and it led him on an interesting, and very productive, creative journey.
The 2018 show This Class Works had been a huge success, visited by over 10,000 people. It featured 30 of McKee’s hugely appealing, distinctive artworks – portraits of recognisable, relatable people in a cartoon graphic style with his signature black outlines. Those lines and the way in which he used them became the focus of McKee’s initial thoughts about trying out a new approach.
“There were a couple of pieces in This Class Works that were getting quite ‘painterly’ but I was still using the black line and I wondered what would happen if I took that line away,” he says.
“Once the show was over, I had a bit of spare time so I started experimenting – still doing the characters I love to create but without the lines. I thought I’d give it a go and I really enjoyed the process. It changed everything. All my work over the past 15 years or so has been made within those boundaries, so when I took them away it was quite liberating in some respects.”
The resulting collection of new works will be on display in an online exhibition Eight New Paintings which opens next week. The hope had been to also show the works in McKee’s gallery in Sheffield city centre, but the latest Covid-19 restrictions mean that won’t now be possible.
The new works feature the familiar characters that recur in McKee’s images – ordinary people in everyday situations, at the pub, going to the football, at home, waiting for a bus – telling eloquent short stories of working-class northern life.
“I didn’t want to step too far away from my usual style, but it’s been quite exciting to go down this route,” he says. “The connections I am asking the viewer to make are slightly different, but I am hoping people will like them.”
Humour is frequently present in his work, as is nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean it is cosy or bland. The themes, especially in this latest collection, are often thought-provoking.
There is joy and playfulness, but poignancy too. One of the new works, Home Care, shows an elderly lady sitting in an armchair, looking longingly or hopefully out of the window; another, OAP Special, shows a pensioner gazing into a café at a cup of tea she probably can’t afford, while in Return of the Waltzer Boy the deep lines on the unsmiling face of an ageing fairground worker hint at a hard life and a complex back story. They speak of loneliness, isolation and privation.
There are messages here but none of it is overstated or preachy.
“The work in both my last show and this one has a lot more of an edge to it, but I think people get what they want from it,” says McKee. “I am mindful that there are things that need to be said but at the same time I don’t want to be tub-thumping. It is subtle. Basically, if you have love in your heart, you will like my work. If it prompts people to maybe rethink a few things, that’s great, but mostly I am here to entertain.”
Born in Sheffield in 1966, McKee grew up on a council estate in the city, the youngest of four siblings. His father was a steelworker and his mother worked part-time in a bakery.
His formative years were in the Seventies and it is this period to which he frequently returns for inspiration.
“There is a particular few years, from about 1970 to 1977, that my thoughts often go back to and a lot of my characters are inspired by people who were around me at that time – my aunties and uncle, my dad and other people who inhabited that space – but others are just straight out of my imagination.”
He acknowledges the potency of nostalgia in the images he creates.
“I am really interested in the part nostalgia plays in our memory and responses,” he says. “It evokes an emotion, whether that is happy or sad, and emotions are really powerful and help people to connect with an artwork.”
McKee discovered his artistic talent at a young age. “I remember at infant school a teacher commenting on my work and praising me,” he says. “I wasn’t really any good at anything else in school but I knew I was on to a winner with art.”
McKee is self-taught and passionate about what he does; something he feels is a family trait. “My dad worked in the steelworks but he was a musician in his spare time – he was a pub pianist. And he was quite creative – when he was reading the newspaper or doing the crossword, he would always do little doodles on the side. He obviously had an innate creativity but he was only able to express it in a part-time way – I wanted to do him proud.”
As a child he was an avid reader of comics such as the Dandy, the Beano and Whizzer and Chips and he began drawing cartoons as a young teenager (“I remember doing some of Ted Heath when he was Prime Minister”).
Early inspirations he says included the Daily Mirror comic strip Andy Capp created by Reg Smythe and Belgian cartoonist Hergé best known for his Adventures of Tintin. You can also see the influence of 1950s pop art and further back to the 19th century – he is a fan of the Impressionists.
“They started painting people in pubs, working in the fields, postmen – real, ordinary people, that was quite ground-breaking in the 1800s. And the Great Masters have also inspired me. I have often used significant works of art and put my own twist on it. Picasso said ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ – pilfering is a bit of a tradition in art, and I think it is important to be a magpie when you are an artist.”
Music has also been an inspiration and continues to play an important role in his life.
“Growing up with my older brothers and sister I got to try on their musical tastes,” he says. “We listened to everything from Queen to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. After watching Top of the Pops all I wanted to do was be a musician and I was in a band for a while. That didn’t work out but I worked in music shops, so I was still part of the industry. I listen to music all the time while I’m working.”
In his spare time he plays in a ukulele band, the wonderfully named Everley Pregnant Brothers, who have played to big crowds at Sheffield’s Tramlines Festival and sold out the city’s Lyceum Theatre. McKee has collaborated with musicians including the Arctic Monkeys, Richard Hawley and Noel Gallagher, all of whom are fans of his work.
Having sold his first painting in 2005, McKee opened his own gallery in 2011 where he has since put on several major exhibitions.
“I wanted it to be a place where people feel relaxed and at home and aren’t intimated. It is a very welcoming, friendly space,” he says. Inclusivity, as his warm, beautifully observed pictures attest, is a major consideration for McKee. “A lot of people who buy my work wouldn’t necessarily go into an art gallery and it’s very important to me that my work is as accessible to as many people as possible.”
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