Star Interview: 'Previous exhibitions have been rose-tinted, but I couldn't avoid saying something': Artist Pete McKee's new show This Class Works opens in Sheffield

There is a cosiness to the work of the Sheffield artist Pete McKee. Think of The Kiss - his mural of two pensioners in a clinch, on the side of Fagan's pub on Broad Lane - or Frank, another large-scale wall painting on Burton Road that depicts a whippet nose-deep in a packet of Hobnobs.

Friday, 13th July 2018, 4:15 pm
Updated Tuesday, 17th July 2018, 12:03 am
Pete McKee. Picture: Chris Etchells

But is McKee ashamed of sentimentality? Not a bit.

"A lot of the paintings are really warm, I can't help being like that," he says. "I have a love for people. There's nothing nasty in my work."

Pete McKee. Picture: Chris Etchells

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Visitors to his latest exhibition - the first since he underwent a lifesaving liver transplant last year to treat a rare genetic illness - might discover a little more grit, however.

This Class Works, which opens tomorrow at 92 Burton Road, a former spring factory in Neepsend, is billed as a tribute to a section of society he feels has been unfairly demonised and scapegoated. He may make his living as a painter today, but he once worked as a postman and a supermarket shelf-stacker, and was incensed by the media and politicians' portrayal of the working class - a denigration he thinks has intensified since the Brexit vote.

"Previous exhibitions have been rose-tinted and nice, but I couldn't avoid saying something," he explains over tea in a café near the exhibition venue. "Not in a tub-thumping way, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind - no-one's going to come and join the Marxist movement."

And some themes are consistent with his past, he reasons.

National Hug Service, by Pete McKee

"Poverty is always mentioned in my work, because we were skint. But it was a shared understanding, because people who like my work have grown up in a very similar situation to me," says Pete, who lost his mother, Marjorie, to cancer when he was only a young schoolboy. After her death he was brought up along with his two brothers and sister by their father, Frank, a steelworker.

"We might have fortunately found a way to put more money in our back pocket than we had when we were kids running round the estate, but you don't forget that. You understand it's real, and can look back and say 'We survived it and we're better for it'."

This Class Works arrives two years on from Six Weeks To Eternity, his previous show that attracted 8,000 people in 48 hours at Magna in Rotherham. Running for 16 days, it features work by others including actress Maxine Peake, Heaven 17 musician Martyn Ware, the late photographer Tish Murtha and muralist Jo Peel - a group handpicked by Pete, who was worried he wouldn't be able to produce enough pieces while he recovered from surgery. His fears were unfounded, it turns out.

"I've done about 49 pieces in total, including sculptural works. There are well over 100 pieces in all."

Pete McKee. Picture: Chris Etchells

He's taken a break to talk as the final preparations are made. "I've had a few sleepless nights," he admits, rubbing his forehead outside in the sun; usually he dresses quite dapperly but today he's resorted to shorts and T-shirt, his silver quiff hidden beneath a straw hat.

Tickets are being sold in advance to manage the flow of visitors at Burton Road. "Each session is 100 people, so 100 people are going to pile in and then find their way round, and take it all in at their own pace. I didn't want anything to be crowded. The previous ones we've done have all been on one or two days, so basically 5,000 people have had to find a way to see the works and there's been a queue or melee. This time every piece has got the chance to breathe and you've got the time to look at it."

He experienced popularity's downside last year on a trip to the British Museum's survey of Hokusai, a Japanese silkscreen master from the 1800s who influenced the McKee style. "I was desperate to see it, he's one of my all-time heroes. And it was so rammed, you could hardly get near any of it."

A programme of supporting events is spread over the fortnight. On Sunday there is a sold-out pastiche of a working men's club night in Crookes, Ken Loach's film Spirit of 45 gets a special screening at The Showroom on Tuesday and Paulette Edwards is leading two Q&A sessions with Pete. Walking tours are being offered around Neepsend and Kelham Island focusing on industrial history, sculptor Anthony Bennett will be working live in the venue taking inspiration from people's memories, and Pete is hosting a talk with the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Magid Magid, on the final day.

Threpeny Bit Opera, by Pete McKee - inspired by a kiosk outside Pond Street bus station

"I'm disappointed some racists don't want him," he says, his usual air of relaxed amiability fading for a moment. "This freedom of speech thing is nonsense, there's too much credence given to bad views simply on this idea we've got to be balanced. Racism is racism, you can't accept it or give it a platform. There's this skewed idea that freedom of speech is that you're allowed to be rude to people. It's not. Freedom of speech is being allowed to say something and not get locked up in prison."

He wants to discuss with Magid the conditions in Somalia - the country he fled aged five with his family - and what it was like to settle in Sheffield. "That's the thing we in our comfy houses don't appreciate - what drives someone thousands of miles simply to find somewhere safer. We just see it as a problem."

One new painting, International Rescue, celebrates the Windrush generation who came to the UK from Caribbean countries from 1948 to 1971. It's a timely piece, given the Government's recent scandal over its treatment of these migrants. "I've always highlighted and praised them. They brought a little bit of style, and ska and reggae to the country - a whole new music we Brits fell in love with."

Elsewhere there's a work called Let Them Eat Crisps, depicting a girl tucking in to a bag of Monster Munch, about people's reaction to free school meals being cut. "The kids are the victims but nobody cares."

It's not the first time Pete has addressed hunger. Last month he offered tin cans decorated with a McKee print in exchange for food bank donations in Sheffield city centre; the queue snaked around the block.

But, when asked if any of the new works directly confront Brexit, he shakes his head. "It's a divided situation. Half of the people who come to my exhibition will by default be Brexit supporters. Half of Sheffield was and half wasn't."

Pete, 52, acknowledges his home city has given him his livelihood; after drawing cartoons for the Sheffield Telegraph's sport section he sold his first painting aged 39, opening his A Month of Sundays gallery on Sharrow Vale Road in 2010. He is known outside South Yorkshire, though; Noel Gallagher is a fan, he launched a pop-up shop in London and was commissioned to draw the sleeve for a widely-promoted Human League box set. He also collaborates with fashion designer Paul Smith, another admirer of McKee's wistful paintings, which are rich in nostalgia and hint at the bold pop art approach of Patrick Caulfield.

"The ideal scenario is I'm not relying on the people of Sheffield to give me a living," he says. "It's important people like my work in other cities because otherwise I'll be working in Tesco's again in a couple of years. Everyone will have got a picture and not need another one. On the print sales side of things it's all over the place, which is encouraging."

And he doesn't take his job for granted.

"It's the one driving ambition I had, from being six - I was going to make a living through my creativity. Finally, after 40-odd years, I found that. I never want it to end, I'm blessed every morning. I hope I can carry on until my death painting. If you can find a job you enjoy doing, you'll never work a day again in your life."

The exhibition runs until July 29. Opening times are Monday to Friday, 4pm to 9pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 8pm. Tickets £5, including a programme. Visit to book.

'I just wanted to make a positive impact'

When Pete McKee left hospital last summer after undergoing a liver transplant he immediately started work on his new exhibition.

"My life was changed, I could see how remarkably well it had made me feel straight away," he says. The replacement organ was needed as Pete was diagnosed with cirrhosis, caused by a genetic illness.

"The operation had worked and I just wanted to make a positive impact. Making the show was the most natural thing in the world to do."

Pete - who, remarkably, met his donor's widow in December - is now in long-term care, and goes for check-ups every three months. "It's a five minute conversation, very easy. I feel better than I've done in my entire life, 110 per cent. I was really ill for a long time without realising. I've lost a bit of weight now. Unbeknown to me I was bloating up through fluid retention."

He can drink moderately if he wants to, but prefers to stick to low-alcohol beers. "If I'm in a social situation I'll have a couple of those, just to be part of a gang."

His family has been tested for the condition. "My brother's got it, but not as severely as I have. It's hit and miss, sod's law."

Pete's stepson Chris and son Charley, and his assistants Lucy and Ellen, comprise the McKee team these days. "They've taken a lot of the work on. It's amazing. All I've had to do is work on the paintings themselves."