Just before Christmas I drove over to Mackenzie Thorpe’s gallery in Richmond to chat with the artist. He was about to sign copies of his new book at the Dorman Museum and was clearly looking forward to this hugely. It was a real honour to be asked by the Dorman Museum, he told me.
We followed this up by chatting about his life and his artwork. What followed was a conversation with Teesside’s most famous artist that I felt hugely privileged to share in. I was so surprised to find this most successful and very commercial artist Mackenzie Thorpe to be some modest, humble even and still filed with fears and doubts about his work.
I hope you find this interview as enthralling as I do.
My opening question was to ask Mackenzie whether nostalgia is the starting point for his work.
I am not purposely drawing nostalgia I am trying to work out who I am. And where do I fit in. So looking at myself in situ and then whatever idea happens or event happens in the world how to I draw that in a Mackenzie Thorpe way. Not the way of somebody else or to draw it in a way that it might fit in with fashion or through somebody else eyes. It is always my biggest challenge.
So it is almost like I have got to reduce it and then build it again in a Mackenzie Thorpe way. And when I say a Mackenzie Thorpe way I think that it hasn’t just got to have my perspective no but it has to have my full life perspective. So as the kid, the teenager…
Look at this picture. It is called The Champ, so it is obviously taken from the movie, The Champ. If I put a pair of boxing gloves on now I would be as useless as this kid. I don’t know how to fight. I have had about two fights in my life and got beaten in both of them. I am the person who will do anything to avoid conflict. I would let someone stab me a hundred times and say alright mate, it is like a wrong fit. It does not fit with me. So the violence of the world doesn’t fit, there is blood spilt but it doesn’t fit with me. So I’ve got to find a way of expressing that and drawing that the Mackenzie Thorpe way. So, I have to live it. By living it I am taking my nostalgia and then putting these words and phrases in my head to do with the thing that has happened into the Mackenzie Thorpe world and that’s how they come out.
So, I can draw like a photograph if I want to but that is not Mackenzie Thorpe. That is a skill. But how does Mackenzie Thorpe? But that is what makes me in a sense, successful, my niche because nobody can draw Mackenzie Thorpe. People draw Peter Bloggs or Mary Smith and I shouldn’t try and draw them. So, it is really hard sometimes to stick to your core.
You see a Mark Rothko, a stunning abstract that picks you up and throws you round the world twice and brings you back to earth and I go I should be doing that then. That’s why I shouldn’t be painting like this, so I go to work and I doubt it because it’s not like, I mean look what he did.. Is this really art? And then this voice says to me it is Mackenzie Thorpe. Be true to yourself.
It is really hard sometimes you turn the news on and this artist is really successful and getting all this praise. I could do that. I drew like this years ago, like this. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with that. To be the artist that I am and the man that I am. To be satisfied with the Dormans not the Guggenheim. I don’t need a phone call from the Guggenheim, the fact that I got a phone call from the Dormans is IT. So, it has taken me a long time to be happy with who I am. And it has been drawing who I am and learning from it that I can be happy with it. And my role is to do this. So, that is where I am in life. I look back only in a way where it is hard to look forward because I haven’t got much life left. I am not 27, I am 57. So, when I was 27 I knew I had 35 years at least. I can’t say I have got 35 years now, I can’t say I have got 20. I will be lucky if I get 15 and I will glad if I get 15 the way the situation is in life, So, I am looking backwards to draw on the truth. To keep it real. To bring it to now. So, I am not drawing the future. I am drawing the lessons that I have learned so that people can look and try and see if we carry on like this sometimes it is going to end up bad, The struggle might have changed, the shipyards might have gone but it doesn’t mean we don’t have the struggle because the other industries might go as well and then what comes back for that and what builds that up and how does the nest person get employed? And the next family live and grow? And the way society is developing. I see changes in the art world that.. wow look at that. But I have never turned a computer on and I have no interest in it. Not that I am a Luddite but I just like to use my hands. So all the drawings in here (Mackenzie’s Richmond gallery) are all done with my fingers..
Q: You are presenting people who did use their hands in shipbuilding etc.
MT: Yes, it is all about the labour and that is my heritage. So, I didn’t grow up to be a scientist.
I left school with no qualifications. I am dyslexic. I was severely dyslexic as a kid.
Q: At that time was dyslexia recognised?
MT: Not at all so you were beaten for it. So emotionally, physically and mentally it was really hard. Then the total expectations were you would leave school on Friday and start work on Monday. Breaking down boxes, that is what I did at Timothy Whites.
I couldn’t get in the army because I couldn’t spell. In a test they asked me for a Vertical Take Off Aircraft, so I wrote helicopter. He said, look at this… So he said you can’t come in the army. I was destroyed. I was sat around the Army Recruiting office on Borough Road crying my eyes out, what am I going to do then? Who is going to give me a job. And I just got these labouring jobs really but didn’t stop drawing.
Q: So would you say you found your language through art?
MT: The language to myself not to anybody else. It wasn’t a language of encouragement it was like a scratch, an itch. You have just got to keep on doing it. You don’t question why, you just keep on doing it and you hide it keep that to yourself a bit. So when I was in the shipyards I remember saying Oh look at that, look at that, isn’t it beautiful and just getting the mickey taken out of me. So then you stop using that language and I don’t know how I did it. I went through a mental part, of depression.
I was at night school at Bertram Ramsay school. A friend of mine, Adrian who I went to school with said why don’t you go to night school. I was on the dole. I got made redundant from Smiths. And he said go to night school, so I did. And I was drawing away and the teacher said you should go to Art School. I said I can’t go to Art School. Everyone else was drawing like postcards of Scarborough or photographs of lions and I thought that is not art. This is not an art class. I knew it was different to this, I didn’t know there was a different world out there but I knew it was different to this.
At the same time I was going through all this mental torment at, 19/20 years old. I saw Lust for Life, which I had seen as a kid. Vincente Minnelli movie about Van Gogh. But then when I watched it I recognised myself. So this nutcase who is getting stones thrown at him.
I made an easel out of an old chalk board that used to belong to my sister. I took the legs off that. I screwed a chopping board to it and then put two straps on from a haversack and I put that on my back. And my pencils and paints and stuff in a little carrier bag. I would walk up Marton Road to Stewart Park when everyone is going to work. And they would bib their horns and wind their windows down. And shout out “Oi Goya.” They were taking the mickey and I just kept on doing it. And then this movie came on (Lust For Life) and the same thing was happening it was dawning on me. Ah I’m one of them. This is why it is driving me batty because I am batty. And so I just kept on doing it.
This teacher said if you are not going to go to Art School then you should go to Kirby College. When I was on the dole they said I could go there for 11 hours a week and so I did. And he said, Richard Lazelle the teacher there said you should go to Art School. But I didn’t have the guts just to go. It had all been a negative, no you can’t. I have said this story a million times all round the planet but I don’t remember walking from Kirby College to Green Lane Art School. Honestly, I have no recollection of it. I don’t know why or how. I don’t know. I don’t remember going to the front door. All I remember is going to a glass panel in the wall. It was totally empty, the foyer. I knocked on the panel. A women opened the window and she said, “Can I help you?” and I said “Can I be an artist?” Like can I be an electrician, give me a job. And she gave me an application form. And I sat on the cornfield at Saltersgill and filled it in.
And they were asking me questions and I couldn’t write the answers but I did my best.
Why do you want to come to the college? Because I want to be an artist. I was desperate. I had to be. And I got an interview. Which is the wackiest thing. I didn’t tell anybody. But then I got into the room and I must have taken about 500 drawings at least, I could hardly carry them.
And he said well you can’t come to art school. I said oh that’s alright mate because that is when you go down for an interview for a job and they say you haven’t got it. You say alright. I was used to that. I didn’t expect to get the job.
So he said, hang on. Didn’t you want to know why you can’t? Because you can’t spell. Everyone else in your class is 16, they have all got O Levels and they are doing A Levels. You haven’t got any qualifications. And he said you have to study art history and you have to write essays. He said I am going to get a cup of tea and he said get your work out. And I will never forget it and he said I will give you a critique. What’s that, like a blow on the head and it really frightened me.
He went out of the room. I was 20 years old and should have been more savvy but I wasn’t. I hadn’t lived. He came back with this plastic cup in his hand and I had just filled up the whole office, the floor, desk everything with all my work out. I had all my album covers too, Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry, all that stuff. I had painted outside at Stewart Park at dawn and midnight. Hundreds and hundreds of drawings. And he said hang on and he turned and walked out.
He came back with another guy, Tom. Tom says I don’t care if he is from Mars he is in. And that is how I got into art college. And it all started from there.
Q: The quality of your work.
MT: It was the work. And the craziest thing is there are only two colleges in the country where you can do a BA and you don’t have to have any qualifications. So no matter how good I was a drawer, draughtsman, artist I could never go to the Royal College, I could never go to The Slade. I could never go to Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle. Nowhere could I go because I didn’t have an O Level English or Art.
And there was one college in London called the Byam Shaw. Tom wrote them a letter, got an application form. He took me out of all the group classes. I went in with the cleaners on a morning. Worked on my own stuff, worked in the college during the day stayed until the caretaker locked up at night time and I was drawing like crazy. And I got in in London. And it was Tom supported me to do that.
That was in my second year and I was even refused a place in Middlesbrough Art College 3rd and 4th year because I didn’t have qualifications. So, there were guys that I did the first and second year with went to Burlam Road because they had O Levels and I couldn’t go. I could draw like them. Tom said to me they are all good drawers but they won’t be an artist like you because they don’t have your imagination. And they don’t have your graft. I left school at 15 and started college at 20. I went at Christmas, I went in right through the summer. What do I want a day off for? It was 3 months off. I hated it. I went to college every single day in the summer, the cleaners were making me a cup of tea.
That is the Middlesbrough thing where you communicate with the cleaners and they will communicate with you. And they help you out and they did. Ken the caretaker he opened the door and locked the door for me. They were a massive help to me. And I was the first person in ten years to get into this college from the north east.
And then I had no money because I was on the dole and I was refused a grant because it is a private school. The only school in the country I could get in but it is private. So I get accepted and now this. The principal of Middlesbrough Art College took the grant people out for a dinner, more or less for a pint and said you have got to give this kid a grant. I got a grant. Without the support from this town and from these people it wouldn’t have happened. People go on about wealthy towns and be educated and the rest of it. My uncle spent £17.52 to buy the materials to start college. I didn’t have 72p. He took me down Linthorpe Road, bought me the materials. My mam and dad bought me a briefcase. I was the first person to go to college in our family. When I got into the Byam Shaw it was in The Gazette and everybody supported me along the way. You are not aware of it but they were all doing their little bit.
When I came back from London after the interview I was doing a night class with part timers, pensioners or just older people doing a hobby but that was an extra class for me. Tom wanted me to do all the classes I could do to get the training. So every night I was doing this night class with these people. I walked in and they clapped. Tom said you might not be patting yourself on the back but we are.
And I went away to college and did it.
And then years and years afterwards Tom watched me have a show in London and then shortly after that he died. Then a few years ago I was doing a documentary on the BBC and they said where would you like to go in Middlesbrough, we can get you anywhere. I said I would like to go to Middlesbrough Art College because I haven’t walked in there since 1979. Everyone had left and there was no reason for me to go. I had been to see Tom down Burlam Road a couple of times, that was it.
I went in and that guy who interviewed me and said I couldn’t spell came out of retirement to see me. Called Ken Young. He stood in front of the cameras and said he had never seen a student so happy then when he had a piece of paper or board under his arm. He always wanted to work, work, work. And the biggest accolade I have received from the academia, and I have been made a doctor etc he said if I have been one minute part of this then I have done my job. And that is a teacher talking. Off camera I cried my eyes out. It was the biggest accolade. This man, when I came into the room and he said Mackenzie Thorpe and calls me into the room with his monkey boots on, loons, a maroon art top and this and a beard down to his chest. A real art teacher and he said that about me. It was a bigger accolade than getting a doctorate, bigger than meeting the Queen. Because he was acknowledging who I was when I was 5 because I ran around with a piece of paper under my arm when I was 5 and I was only happy when I was doing it when I was 5.
Somebody asked me last night at an exhibition, you must be very happy, happy when you are doing your art.
I said when I am doing it there is no such thing as happy, or sad, there are no legs or arms, there is no gas bill, there is no sky, nothing exists just that and that is being a human being. So no I don’t think of anything, just do it. I stop thinking. But to create you don’t think. You just create.
Q: So where does it come from?
MT: I don’t know. A professor at the British Museum said to me that I am like a radio with an antenna. And he said God knows what you pick up, Japanese one minute and Russian the next. And he said it just goes through your body. That is one way of looking at it.
I have a need. It comes from a need. Just to do it. And what I realised and what I am starting to say when I do lectures is without art I have got nothing. It is who I am.
Q: But on the other hand your art means an awful lot to an awful lot of people, doesn’t it?
MT: Yes I know that but that doesn’t get past my skin. This person who gets told no. This person who was told how thick and stupid he is, hasn’t gone. So when I start to draw. I doubt myself so much and think the work is crap.
MT: Yes but I go ahead and finish it and that’s why I question sometimes maybe I am not a good artist because that is better than mine. I draw something in seconds and I think well it would have taken him two years, so if it is not taking me two years does that mean I am no good at it. So I doubt myself all the time…
Q: You were talking about Vincent Van Gogh. He could do something in seconds.
MT: Yes, yes but then you don’t think it is real. It happened last night even. It happens all the time, people come up to me and say profound things. And it is not mine. Alright, my picture might have given them a springboard or reminded them. But it is not mine.
“You saved my kids life.” “No I didn’t put the nappies on your kid, missus. You were there at 3 am when he had the brain haemorrhage.” She said, “yes but I saw this in your work and.” Well fine. The word genius etc that is sh*te. I don’t accept it. But what I do accept is it motivates me because I find out that it exists and I find out I can do my job like a plasterer.
What, you want another wall doing, brilliant I will do it. I go to a show and it is sold out and there are 1000 people there. I go alright, so do you want to do another show next year? Yes, please. Job on and I go to work. It gives me a reason to go to work again. So I am not just drawing to stick it in the bank like I did most of my life. So that is the big change. As long as I am truthful and honest about it I have got a ticket to do anything I want. Don’t tell lies. Don’t rip anybody off. Don’t try and put something over on the public.
I’ve done my job. I’ve built the best wall I am a master brick layer. I made the best loaf of bread I am the best baker. It is my profession. It is not a gift. It is not for glory. It is a job. A job I do 9-5pm 6 or 7 days a week. It is what I do.