McKee unlocks more potential

Artist Pete McKee, gets ready for his Sheffield Show
Artist Pete McKee, gets ready for his Sheffield Show
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HIS images of Sheffield life have come to define the city for an entire generation.

Evocative, touching and insightful Pete Mckee’s paintings capture aspects of our shared past and grasp the essence of what it means to so many to be a Sheffielder.

McKee painting Fagans wall

McKee painting Fagans wall

But all that is about to change.

His next exhibition ‘The Joy Of Sheff’ is to be the last focused purely on his home city.

We’re going to have to share him with the rest of the world, particularly London where his pictures are in increasing demand.

That doesn’t mean the man – who has, like proper cutlery, ‘Sheffield England’ stamped on every aspect of his character – is leaving his home town.

Far from it.

He’s just added to the city’s growing stock of public art by painting a mural on the side of Fagan’s pub on Broad Lane in the city centre.

But even as his profile continues to rise in Sheffield Pete thinks it’s time for change.

“Sheffield will always be in my work because it will always be in me,” said 47-year old Pete at his studio in Heeley.

“There will be paintings in future that are from and about Sheffield but in terms of a complete exhibition based on pictures about the city this will probably be the last one.

“I have no plans to move anywhere, I love Sheffield and I’m happy here but I need to reach a wider audience.”

The content of the exhibition, now nearing completion is, as ever, instantly recognisable, poignant and reflective.

But there’s a difference.

The scope and subject matter is more ambitious, the style more detailed, he’s come a long way since he began painting using matchpots and B&Q board off-cuts in his Jordanthorpe kitchen eight years ago.

“Since I started in 2005 I think I have become more confident,” said Pete.

“I think the paintings are stronger visually now, more illustrative. I decided I can be a bit more graphic and not worry about being classed as a cartoon artist any more.

“When I started I tried to be arty and minimalist but now I’m more confident in what I do.”

And so he should be.

In the last eight years he’s done work for the rock band Oasis, Warp films, Disney, designer Paul Smith and Fox Broadcasting among many and a sneaky look at the new exhibition shows that confidence.

“There are places and shops that no longer exist, he added. “It’s about a mood and trying to capture the essence of Sheffield in the pictures.”

So what is the essence of Sheffield?

“There’s always a sense of optimism,” he added. “Always an optimistic air about Sheffield people. It’s in the humour and the music and all around.

“There’s a sense that if things aren’t happening for you then you have to make them happen.”

Mckee has certainly made it happen.

The new exhibition – 35 McKee paintings and five commissioned sculpture and ceramics works by other Sheffield artists.

Propped up against the walls and table legs in his studio the new creations.

Bread and Buffer is a cutlery buffer girl taking a break, This Sporting Life brings back the essence of upstairs at the old Suggs on Pinstone Street.

Stubbed Toe at Millhouses Park has depth and structure and there’s a reflection of Redgates toy shop through young eyes.

All Sheffield, all Mckee but moved on slightly.

Then there’s a picture of a boy in ill-fitting school clothes with a cold, characterless school building in the background.

It’s called Dinner Tokens and Welfare Clobber.

“When my Dad was injured in an industrial accident and couldn’t work any more we used to get dinner tokens and a free uniform for school.

“The parka they gave you was already two years out of date and my dad got me clothes that were two sizes too big so they would last longer as I grew.

“They could spot the poor kids coming from 100 yards. I hated having to go down to collect the free dinner tokens in the morning.

“I don’t think it does any harm to feel those emotions. It humbles you and I respect the value of money now when I have it – not that I save it now! But at least I respect the value of it as I’m spending it.

“It was the same with my son Charlie before the paintings started to sell, we had to go through some tough times.

“You don’t want things to be like that for ever but it’s not a bad thing to have been through in life.

“It motivated me to not want to end up that way.”

He settles back to his painting next to the back window of his studio where the River Sheaf slides clear and slowly by alongside the railway line to London.

A wider world and broader horizons beckon for rail and river, as they do for Sheffield’s Pete McKee.