Drawing on his past

Renowned artist and straight-talking Teessider Mackenzie Thorpe talks for the first time about his battle with cancer…

Mackenzie Thorpe knows he is a lucky man. He counts himself as fortunate to have been born and raised in Middlesbrough. He says he is lucky to have a talent that allows him to make a good living as an artist. But he’s never had reason to feel quite so lucky as he does now, having won a battle with bowel cancer that could so easily have taken his life.

He was diagnosed with “the Big C” in April 2016, just two months after the same horrible illness had claimed the life of another iconic Teesside figure, Voice of the Boro Alastair Brownlee.

Outspoken and ebullient on most issues, Mackenzie has never previously spoken about his battle with cancer but now, having been given the all-clear in September, he feels ready to talk.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he nods. “I’d had the pain for months, and it got worse and worse and worse. I only went to the doctor’s because I couldn’t take the pain and (his wife) Susan had nagged me enough. I‘d been burying my head in the sand.

“I went to the doctor on the Thursday, he examined me and said ‘Right, you’re going to hospital for tests right now’ and they’ll be operating tomorrow. It was an emergency operation. It was very serious.

“I had the operation on Friday. Four days later I signed myself out of hospital early. I had had 60-odd clips in my belly but I was on morphine and I just said ‘I’m out of here, I’m going to work’. I went home, I rested for a few days and on the Monday I went back to work in my studio.

“That’s the way I got through it. I knew about Alastair and what had happened to him and then found myself in the same position, but I accepted it. There’s a big chance you’re going to die but I just said ‘Let’s crack on’. It’s not death I worry about, it’s the people I’d leave behind.”

Now, having undergone gruelling months of chemotherapy, he has received the news that allows him to look forward once again.

“I got the all-clear on the fourth of September, and, on the fifth I went to Japan. I had a tour out there but my surgeon had told me I couldn’t go anywhere until I’d recovered.”

And has the experience changed his perspective on life?

“I’ve decided to move on in life,” he reflects. “I don’t care about things that used to bother me. It’s also developed me as an artist. I now understand the trauma of cancer and can put that down on paper when I draw.”

He left his Middlesbrough hometown for London four decades ago but the Teesside that the canvas superstar remembers continues to inspire every brushstroke of his work. Not just the images of dark, harsh industrial landscapes he recalls from his childhood and the gruelling spells toiling in the shipyards and steel plants, but in the hard-working community that forged his own strong work ethic.

Mackenzie’s ever-increasing back-catalogue has become highly collectable around the world but it is most instantly recognisable to Teessiders: street scenes set against cooling towers, hard labour lit by the glow of the furnaces, a long-lost Ayresome Park and his beloved Transporter Bridge.

It’s the inspiration behind the latest exhibition in his Richmond gallery, appropriately titled Made in Teesside, the walls brimming with art that can best be described as a homage to his hometown.

These days he lives in Hove on the South coast with wife Susan, a Park End lass he met in the bar at Teesside Polytechnic, but Mackenzie was born into a family living in a small two-up, two-down terraced house on St Paul’s Road, off Union Street in the heart of Middlesbrough. Later his parents took their seven children to the new model estate of Beechwood.

A young life of real austerity helped form him into the man he is today. “We had nothing,” he recalls. “We didn’t have holidays, we didn’t have a car, we had no luxuries whatsoever. We had a poor life. I’ve got nice cars and homes now, and I have holidays now and again, but the values I grew up with in Middlesbrough are the most valuable to me. That place keeps me who I am. It never left me.

“I remember talking to someone at an art exhibition in New York and I told her my mam had nowt. She looked at me with a bemused look and said ‘Oh, is that like Polio or something?’”

By his own admission he sometimes struggled to fit in at school, struggling with a never-yet diagnosed dyslexia and leaving with no qualifications to his name but a burgeoning talent for art that hadn’t always been appreciated by his elders.

“School was really tough,” he admits. “One day one of the nuns who ran the place said to me ‘If you were to die now, God wouldn’t let you go to heaven.’ I believed the Bible 100% back then, so this made me listen. She said ‘You’ll never get married, you’ll never get a job. Do you know why? Because all you do is draw. This is Middlesbrough. There’s no time nor place for it here. If you don’t learn something you won’t be able to get a job and how can you ever get married and have someone rely on you if you can’t provide for them?”

It was a spell working in the town’s famed Smiths Dock that perhaps most inspires his work but it was studying at Middlesbrough Art College that changed the course of the young Mackenzie’s life.

Did he enjoy it, I ask?

“It was the best thing in my life, I think about it nearly every day,” he replies with typical turbo-charged enthusiasm. “If you like swimming, well, I was doing my kind of swimming – art – 24/7, every second of the day. I loved every minute of it. I’d arrive at six o’clock even though lessons didn’t start till nine, and I’d stay till half past nine at night. The teachers, Tom Wall and Ken Young, changed my life because they had so much faith in me.”

Then came a big move to London to continue his studies at an art college in the capital. You can take the man out of Middlesbrough, but you can never take Middlesbrough out of the man.

“Mam gave me a ten pound note and a corned beef sandwich and off I went,” he recalls. “When I got off the bus, I bought some eight-by-four hardboard, nailed it to the wall and started to draw the steelworks.

“I was laying down my identity. It was my way of saying ‘This is where I come from and this is what I do’. It’s what I continue to do every day. I’m very comfortable drawing Middlesbrough.

“Working on Smiths Dock when I was 17 or 18 had such a massive impact on me. I was only there a year working with my dad and these hard-case blokes but whatever it did, it did. Something happened, I think maybe I passed over from being a boy to a man.”

Forged from Teesside steel, it is perhaps no surprise that Mackenzie does not talk anything like a “typical” artist.

He smiles when this is pointed out. “I’ve got no time for arty-farty types, I’m the bloke from Middlesbrough, and no matter what I’ve come across – the best restaurants, the most beautiful hotels or whatever – I’m just the same.

“I don’t have an artist friend. I haven’t got the time and patience for them. At the age of 15 I was working, so I learned a worth ethic from a young age. I consider myself an artist who just goes to work and does a job in the same way a plasterer or brick layer does.”

But how does he marry such a working class background with selling pieces of his art for thousands of pounds, with even prints of his collections regularly selling for four-figure fees?

“That knocks me out,” he admits. “I was in in Stratford-upon-Avon recently when a couple told me they had 90 pieces of my work. That’s what I can’t get over, that someone wants to spend their hard-earned cash on my work, from all the artists in the world.”

Having been given that cherished all-clear, after a year’s sabbatical Mackenzie is now regularly on his global travels once again but he’s at his happiest when alone in his studio.

He enthuses: “I’m lucky I can go somewhere and be myself. There’s no place for worries, bills, politics, religion or anything else in that room. I put pastel on the paper – that’s all I’m there for. In the morning there’s just a white piece of paper but in the afternoon there will be a picture, and people will take it home and put in on their wall.”