Art: Sheffield artist Pete McKee shifts focus for new show Don't Adjust Your Mindset

Fresh from success in London, artist Pete McKee can’t wait to show his home city what all the fuss is about.

Thursday, 5th May 2022, 7:49 am
Updated Thursday, 5th May 2022, 10:06 am

Featuring paintings, sculptures and photographs, his new exhibition is called Don’t Adjust Your Mindset and marks a shift in focus for the Sheffield artist.

Renowned for his nostalgic take on life, Pete’s latest work was prompted by the pandemic and deals with topics such as digital dependence, climate change and police brutality.

Not very Pete McKee, but then neither was a London show. His work at Hoxton Arches last month was his first time in the capital for a decade.

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Pete McKee signs the guide to his latest exhibition Don't Adjust Your Mindset

“It went well and was really well received by a lot of new faces” says Pete, relaxing at home in Sharrow. “It’s really encouraging to get such a positive response from first time viewers of my work.

“You always want to expand your base if possible because there are only so many walls in Sheffield! I’ll have to do smaller pictures.”

One of those walls is Fagan’s pub on Broad Lane in the city centre where his mural Snog is a much-loved landmark. Don’t Adjust Your Mindset has that McKee touch but is darker, more satirical.

It runs at Sheffield Millennium Gallery from May 13-22, his first major exhibition since This Class Works in 2018. The first day is Friday the 13th. “I’m not superstitious but I better keep an eye out for ladders,” he jokes.

Part of a series, this photograph explores how much we rely on emojis to communicate how we feel. Pete says he wanted to see what this would look like if it was represented literally and he is pictured as a vicar. An emoji is among the mourners.

The pandemic gave him food for thought, particularly his dependence on digital tech. “Like everyone, I had nowhere to go and nowt to do,” says Pete. “We turned to our laptops and phones.”

He admits it got out of hand. “I was on social media an unhealthy amount of time.”

But not surprising when you consider where Pete draws his ideas from. “I look to the outside world for inspiration, normally cafes or pubs so I had to find a new social medium.

“I turned to my phone for companionship and used it as a window to the outside world.

Happy Jack, an individual forced back into work because his state pension isn’t enough to support his household.

“When scrolling its screen over the following months, I saw a mixture of anger, injustice, LOLs, contrary opinions, misinformation and a plethora of community-spirited endeavours to lift the mood of the nation.

“The exhibition is my observation of where our lives were going and how we are living, not a nostalgic romance which can be rose tinted.

“It was a massive change of direction with contemporary subject matter. The style changed and became more multi-faceted, eclectic and embracing modern technology.”

He did have some social media experience. Pete has had a Twitter account for 13 years, so was aware how to use it and what it threw up - both good and bad.

Wish You Were Here is designed like an old postcard and shows a collapsing sandbank strewn with rubbish, which includes a caravan.

During lockdown, this included topics such as climate change. As a grandfather-of-two, the future of the planet is important to him.

“The theme won’t ever go away,” he says. His take on it was personal. “I’ve got a caravan in Northumberland and the seaside is dear to my heart,” says Pete.

It led to a painting called Wish You Were Here, designed like an old postcard and showing a collapsing sandbank strewn with rubbish, which includes a caravan. “Seeing debris on the beach and a caravan gone over the edge was intriguing and frightening.”

Twitter also drew him to the police reaction to the Sarah Everard murder when women gathered to protest about safety.

“The police went in heavy handed and it really annoyed me because two weeks later Scottish football fans were there and the police stood off.

“I’m focussing on the present but there still is a nostalgic element.”

The Absent Drinker depicts an empty pub table, a solitary coaster on its corner and a view out to high rise flats through the window behind.

One example is Happy Jack, an individual forced back into work because his state pension isn’t enough to support his household.

Some people choose to continue working however, Jack is an individual who doesn’t have a choice but to work. “It’s relevant to me because I don’t have a pension and I’ll be working for as long as humanly possible to make ends meet,” he says. Happily, he loves his work.

“I rarely take time off because it is a joy to create, I like to keep my hands and mind busy.”

Another topic of contemporary significance, not least as we emerge from nearly two years of restrictions, is the hospitality crisis which sees the industry wrestle with problems including shifting consumer habits, tax rises and job security.

A play on Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker, The Absent Drinker depicts an empty pub table, a solitary coaster on its corner and a view out to high rise flats through the window behind.

There’s also a series of photographs in the exhibition and one explores how much we rely on emojis to communicate how we feel. Pete says he wanted to see what this would look like if it was represented literally and he is pictured as a vicar while an emoji is among the mourners.

It all seems a long way from his early forays into art. Now 56, Batemoor-born Pete discovered his ability to draw as a child, finding that art was the one subject he ‘didn’t get told off in.’

Growing up he read every comic he could get his hands on and the graphic style influenced his work. He went to school on the Batemoor council estate and his father was a steelworker until an industrial accident forced him to retire. His mother worked part-time at a bakery.

A self-taught artist, Pete opted for jobs which would help him develop his style. He worked as a postman and then at Tesco, packing orders. “I did both those jobs deliberately because you started at 6am. I got home and carried on my art.”

He drew cartoons for the Sheffield Telegraph and would often leave the originals on the photocopier. “The content was only relevant to that weekend,” he says. “I remember those times with great fondness.

“It was my first paid art job and I did it for 25 years until ill-health stopped me. The pay never changed in all that time but they were beautiful people to work with.”

He first sold a painting in 2005 after The Girl with Wind In Her Hair was bought at the Washington pub in the city centre. More sales followed and another show at The Forum led to more customers. “The income outgrew the Tesco money so I could go full-time.”

In 2010 Pete opened the McKee gallery in Sheffield on Sharrowvale Road. He feared for its prospects in lockdown as businesses struggled.

“I was worried and thought the last thing people would to do was buy art products but people wanted to cheer themselves up so took themselves online. I’m amazed by the love I get from people - long may that continue and I’ll do my best to keep people happy.”

His CV includes the 6 Weeks to Eternity’ exhibition in 2016 which was staged over a weekend. He has also collaborated with various creative individuals and collectives including designer Paul Smith. Famous customers include Oasis star Noel Gallagher.

It has earnt him respect from his home city. In 2018 Pete received an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University and was presented as Doctor of Arts at that year’s graduation.

Health is also an issue and he’s a big fan of the NHS. “They’ve saved my life three times in five years,” he says after a liver transplant, having a pacemaker fitted and a heart valve replaced. “The NHS has always taken brilliant care of me. It is amazing and I have immense gratitude to it and love for it.”

Pete shows that by producing work for the Teenage Cancer Trust charity and is also a patron of the Sheffield Children’s Hospital charity, Artfelt. His contribution to the Bears of Sheffield public art trail was called Thank You Sheffield Children’s Hospital and raised £30,000 at auction. “It amazes me how much they go for but I’m delighted to help.”

He’s also proud of his work on the city walls. “Snog never got tagged and I’m really proud of that.” Another work called Muriel fared less well. “I had invaded their territory and Muriel got a bit of a bash.”

It hasn’t put him off. “I want to do more street art in Sheffield. I love the idea because it is accessible, free and brightens up an area.”

But first is the Millennium Galleries show. “It is going to be interesting Sheffield is the mainstay of people who know and love my work. They are familiar with my past, if I can get a warm reception to this it will have been worth doing.

“I needed to get something off my chest, it gave me a creative kick, because I was probably in danger of repeating myself, so it was great to try a new style and it will be really interesting to see how people react to it.”

Meanwhile his shop continues to thrive. “It is brilliant that I’m able to employ people to run it for me. It means I'm doing the right thing which is incredible and not something I take for granted.”

Don’t Adjust Your Mindset will be open at Millennium Gallery between 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday and 11am-5pm on Sunday.

Gilded Lily. Pete has often painted his version of the archetypal grandmother and this playfully subverts a familiar character by imagining how older people might look in the future, based on today’s styles and forms of expression.
From the Pictodrama series
Pete McKee.
Artist Pete McKee back at work after his transplant operation
Artist Pete McKee pictured in Endcliffe Park. 22 October 2020. Picture Bruce Rollinson