The Real McKee
Sheffield artist Pete McKee has been a cartoonist and illustrator for more than 16 years, but despite his obvious talents, which were apparent from an early age, the work he did for clients such as Sheffield Telegraph and various other local magazines and fanzines was more of a paid hobby than a career. His earnings from his art merely supplemented the income he derived from a series of jobs including postman, supermarket worker and record shop assistant.
But when Pete found he was unable to afford a birthday present for a close friend, he decided to ditch the pen and ink and take up paints to create a unique gift. The result – a painting of the Washington Pub on Devonshire Green which he painted on a block of MDF (which he chose because he could pick up off-cuts for 50p, much cheaper than the standard canvas) was so well received that Pete was inspired to explore painting with a renewed vigour.
Since then, Pete has gone on to produce paintings for Manchester band Oasis, had his work exhibited around the UK and recently been commissioned by Clark’s shoes to design a limited edition version of their famous desert boot, as well as being asked by Disney to create a series of their characters in his own inimitable style. The work he’s produced – his Sheffield working class roots providing a major source of inspiration for his sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous paintings – has earned him the nickname ‘The Lowry of Sheffield’.
Born in 1966 into a working class family on a Sheffield Council Estate, the course of Pete’s life could have been very different. His father worked in the steelworks for all of his working life, but Pete is convinced his talents are a legacy his father passed on.
“I’m convinced if my Dad had been born into a later generation he would have been very creative,” says Pete. “But when he was a lad he had a big family and had no option other than to go straight into work and support the rest of the family. There was no option to go to University, it just wasn’t something a working class lad did.”
Yet his father’s unutilised talents led him to encourage his son in his own creative ambitions. “When I was younger I was always drawing on bits and bobs of paper, the edges of newspapers,” remembers Pete. “My dad worked shifts, and when he got home and I was having breakfast he’d always throw me his copy of the Daily Mirror so I could look at the Andy Capp cartoons.”
The clean, simple lines of those Andy Capp drawings had a huge influence on Pete, yet despite his apparent talent for art, he harboured other creative ambitions.
“I wanted to go to drama school, but even though my dad was very open to me being creative, that just wasn’t something that a lad from a Sheffield council estate did,” he says. “So then I decided I wanted to be a rock star and wasted five years of my life trying to do that.”
With the young Pete struggling to find his way in the creative industries, the one certainty in his life was that he wouldn’t follow his dad and brothers into factory life, as ‘that was never the game plan for me’.
But having ditched the desire to be a rock star or actor, Pete settled into pursuing a career as a cartoonist. When the editor of the Sheffield Telegraph picked up some cartoons Pete had created for a football fanzine and published one of them, Pete called him the next day and said, “thanks for publishing my work – do you want some more, and can I get paid please?”
Sadly, just a year after Pete’s first published cartoon, his father passed away. Having lost his mum at the age of seven, his parents weren’t around to see the huge success Pete has gone on to achieve with his art.
“My dad would have been delighted to see that I’ve actually made it – that art is now my full-time career,” says Pete. “I’m not into religion or spirituality, but if they are looking at me it’s nice to know that they would have been proud of me, and seen that his encouragement had paid off.”
Since Pete made the move from pen and paper to paint on MDF, his career has soared. Just a year after switching mediums, he was finally able to give up the day job and concentrate on painting full time.
Drawing inspiration from his working class roots, his love of music and the Sheffield culture he has immersed himself in, he has created a series of striking, thought-provoking paintings that stay true to his original love of clean lines and simplicity with references to snooker at The Crucible, the ‘hole in the road’ (Fishtank) and The Limit nightclub.
“My subject matter is very personal,” he admits. “At my first exhibition in a Sheffield pub I had no idea how people would react, because all I’d done before then was draw my cartoons and send them to people I’d never met, then receive a cheque in the post a couple of weeks later. Having my paintings there on the wall in front of me and seeing people’s reactions was very daunting. Every new exhibition brings back those same feelings – I’m showing something I’ve created that’s very personal to me and being judged on that basis.”
A large amount of Pete’s work depicts the past, particularly the 1970s – Mods, Rockers, British seaside holidays, chopper bikes, “I’m telling stories about myself and I want people to connect with what I’m saying. The past is a great way of making that connection. But at the same time, modern culture, fashion and music are all very emotive and I just strive to connect with people, and challenge their preconceptions.”
Pete’s paintings are accompanied by humorous titles and quirky punchlines but, he says, strip away the words and what’s left is often a melancholy picture that, I suggest, touches on the sadness of his own father’s wasted creativity.
“Yes, I can agree with that,” Pete says. “I’m an upbeat and positive person, but I think if you’re creative you have to be in touch with that melancholy side – it gives the painting gravity and an edge.”
His Sheffield roots have remained important to Pete, and he has never had any desire to leave, despite what he saw as little creative support in his early career.
“I used to phone galleries and institutions and get told that they didn’t support local artists,” he says. “That was incredibly annoying and frustrating but it just made me more determined to succeed. When you come across an obstacle you can either recoil or beat it, and I’m very much of the persuasion that obstacles are there to be overcome.”
It’s this tenacity that has seen Pete take control of every aspect of his art career. He has no agent or manager, and his success is the result of sheer hard graft. “When I have my body of work I just go out there and knock on doors,” he says. “I’m a free agent in that respect, and completely in control of my work from the initial idea to getting it on the walls in front of people.”
Thankfully, support for the creative industries in Sheffield has come a long way since those early days. “The creative and arts scene is really developing and getting stronger, and people are choosing to either stay here or come and live here from elsewhere for that reason, and it makes it a really exciting place to be.”
And having been at the receiving end of many closed doors in his time, Pete is more than happy to provide support to budding artists. “You can’t tell someone how to paint, but anyone can drop me a line and ask for advice on how to approach their career in art,” he says. “Everyone needs to develop their own style, and mine was a combination of those early cartoon influences, the past, my love of music, and my imagination and inspiration; and it all comes together to form my paintings.”
Pete’s distinctive style has earned him recognition from Clarks shoes, for whom he has designed a limited edition desert boot, and global giant Disney.
“Disney put a call out for artists with a distinctive style to interpret Disney characters in their own way, so I got in touch with them and they were really keen to work with me,” he says. “I’ve done versions of Goofy, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, and in one of my paintings I’ve put them all standing outside a caravan which is an homage to one of my favourite Disney shorts called Mickey’s Trailer.”
For Pete, talent and tenacity have finally got him to where he wanted to be as a young boy doodling cartoons in the corners of his Dad’s Daily Mirror. Not content to rest on his laurels though, he’s currently in talks with an international fashion house, ‘although I can’t talk about that yet’, has exhibitions planned in Japan and is continuing to paint and exhibit his work throughout the UK.
Yet, in his own modest style, he plays down his huge success. “I’m basically just trying to spread the net as far as I can,” he shrugs. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens next though.”