A Real Character - Pete McKee
Though often simplistic in composition, Pete McKee’s art is capable of provoking vast emotion. He spoke to Matthew Ketchell about celebrity commissions, his passion for Sheffield and the good old days
‘My work is cartoon-esq but I would class it as bona fide art too,’ he explains. ‘I twigged that artists get a bit more leeway and respect than cartoonists, so thought, “If I try and paint rather than draw with pen and ink, I might get something out of this”’. So that’s what he did. Using emulsion and fibreboard (because they were cheap materials), he began painting his cartoons. Some friends expressed an interest in buying a couple, momentum built and Pete became a full-time artist 10 years ago, leaving behind previous jobs as a factory worker and postman.
‘There isn’t that much expression on the faces I paint,’ he says, explaining his simple style. ‘I like to keep it minimal and more art-like. As soon as I start painting characters with eyes, eyebrows and smiles the work would become really cartoon-like.’ One of his influences is Reg Smythe, a fellow northerner (born in Hartlepool) who created the legendary Andy Capp comic strip in the 1950s. ‘I loved his simple straight lines and the economy of detail he used to tell the story with. One of the great images I have of Andy Capp is him asleep on the settee with a hole in his sock. It reminds me of my brother when he used to fall asleep on the settee after a shift, or when he’d had a pint in the afternoon’.
Snapshots from his childhood form the backbone of Pete’s work. His mum passed away when he was young and he was brought up by his dad who, like many men in Sheffield-men during the 1970s, was a steelworker. ‘He was a typical shift worker,’ Pete recalls. ‘Working days and nights, he’d be in the pub afternoons and evenings, even though he was looking after me – and he didn’t do a bad job – but he always maintained that traditional working-class lifestyle.’
Pete’s childhood, relationships, passion for music and fashion, together with a self-deprecating humour, all combine on the canvas to form highly evocative images which have garnered a worldwide following. ‘I’m more of an artist of the working class,’ he says. ‘I try not to do it in a patronising way. It’s more a celebration of the positive things: your neighbours, people you know, people who watch your back.’
There’s a huge amount of nostalgia in Pete’s work and he admits he’s guilty of harking back to the good old days. ‘I remember saying once, “I paint the working class as it was when it was good, before flatscreen TVs and shell suits”. You used to get old blokes in suits, now you get old blokes in Donnay tracksuits and that makes me sigh. The rose coloured spectacles are definitely out on me when it comes to the past, but nostalgia’s not a dirty word. If I can create an emotion that brings pleasure to someone’s life, then I class that as job done.’
Pete has received commissions from the likes of Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, designer Paul Smith and Sheffield band, the Arctic Monkeys. ‘When I did a painting of the Arctic Monkeys I was more interested in where they were before they were famous – that moment where they decide to be a band – so I painted four kids playing football and one of them has a drum kit and says, “Let’s form a band”. There’s always that starting point with anybody famous. They were just kids, they came up with a crazy idea and went through with it. I’m always interested in the journey. Everybody starts pretty much on that same level.’
Pete has exhibited consistently since becoming a full-time artist. He mainly showcases his work in the North, but has also held exhibitions in Tokyo and is planning (and currently painting) a pop-up exhibition for London this May called Dig My Label. ‘It’s going to be at Paul Smith’s head office. They’ve got a big warehouse area and I’m taking that over for a few days.’ It will be his first major showcase for 2014 and he’ll be collaborating with musicians and personalities such as Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Richard Hawley, Irvine Welsh and actors Paddy Considine and Vicky McClure. Asking each to pick their top ten albums of all time, Pete will be painting LP covers and displaying them in a specially created pop-up record shop. ‘It’s going to celebrate everything to do with vinyl records: ownership, collecting them, listening to them at home – it’s a do-it-yourself exhibition and it’s on for three days. After that I’d love to be able to tour it round the UK.’
Pete feels that communities such as the one he now finds himself surrounded by on Sharrow Vale Road epitomise the shift in culture Sheffield has gone through, from an industrial city to a creative one. ‘People are replacing factories with art, drama and music. That’s the life and soul of this city now. There’s that mentality of doing it yourself because no one else will bloody do it for you. That’s why Sheffield prospers. It feels as though it’s been left out somewhere along the line so has to make its own entertainment. It’s the modern equivalent of crowding round the piano and singing songs.’