Sheffield artist Pete McKee has confirmed his new exhibition, 'Frank and Joy A Love Story', will take place at a Trafalgar Warehouse - a custom built space in the city throughout November.
Renowned for his paintings that reflect social commentary, this show tells the story of two working class everyday people and explores how all the most important parts of their lives revolved around their local pub and the people who were part of this community.
We caught up with McKee to get the low down on how preparations are going, his design process and much more.
Check out the full interview below.
Your brand new exhibition, 'Frank and Joy A Love Story', opens next month – how are preparations going?
They’re very much still ongoing! I thought I’d done all the work four weeks ago, and then decided I wanted to put one more piece in so I’ve been pulling some late nights to finish that off. We’ve got some silkscreen prints for the exhibition so I’ve been to the printers to see those in production which has been exciting! The bare bones of it are there and the meat and flesh aren’t far off.
From a production point of view, have you always been one to try and cram in as much as possible?
Absolutely, yes! We’re always making tweaks with every aspect of what I do and especially with this exhibition where we want to make the experience as special and unique as possible. We’ve taken over a warehouse space so we’ve had to build it from scratch – physically we’ve built walls and had to fill it with pretty things. I’ve always got my brain working and thankfully in a way I never really switch off. Sometimes it is minor details, but to answer the question – yes I will always try to go a little bit further.
Is having a blank canvas such as a warehouse space sometimes more of a hinderance than say being limited to having a ready-made gallery with finite dimensions?
With a warehouse there are rarely any real, useable walls so you have to go in and make some before you start. It is exciting and creates a lot of solutions to problems you didn’t anticipate in the first place and in some ways that makes it a pretty unique experience. When it comes to putting on a show, we don’t want it to just be a case of hanging some paintings in a gallery – we want people to feel like they’ve visited something special and leave with a memory in one way or another. I like to think of it like Mr. Benn where he’d go on an adventure and find something in his pocket from his travels that ends up being a treasure trove that reminds him of the experience.
'Frank and Joy A Love Story' stems from your iconic ‘The Snog’ which has been on the side of Fagans in Sheffield for a decade – did you initially feel it’d be such an important part of the Sheffield skyline when you started work on it?
When I first came up with the idea, I felt that it was such an impactful image that would hopefully resonate with people. Sometimes it doesn’t always work the way you want it to and you come up with an idea thinking ‘people are going to go crazy for this’ and it doesn’t! For ‘The Snog’, it warms my heart that so many people have taken to it and continue to seek it out when they’re in the city. Sheffield has some stunning iconography across the city so I am delighted that people consider my work to be a part of that.
You’ve teased that the story of the exhibition takes place in ‘The Buffer’s Rest’ where industry and housing meet – do you think it is this relatability that continues to attract people’s attention?
I always try to make sure that the stories are a common story that everyone can relate to. In a way it is like dipping into an episode of Coronation Street where you have a familiarity built on the fabric of what you’ve been surrounded by in your own life. The characters I create are believable and take inspiration from people I’ve come across in the past – it is important for me that people can relate to these because at the end of the day I am just a normal bloke and 90% of people that have seen my work have experienced the same things I have. What is in my memory bank is most likely very similar to that of the average person at the exhibitions.
Your work has always, in my non-art-expert-opinion, been reminiscent of L.S. Lowry in the sense that you can look at it and instantly be transported to a relatable activity – would you agree that this is the approach you go for?
Absolutely! Lowry was watching those people and painting his experiences. Obviously we use different techniques, but we’re trying to tell the same story of how the working class live their lives. I was brought up on a council estate and my two brothers still live their lives on that same estate. It is important to document these stories and lovely to know that people love my work because of that.
Do you find that when you delve into your memory bank, you’re often looking back with rose tinted sunglasses?
The beautiful thing about nostalgia is that softens the edges and makes the memories you’ve got positive. I was a latch key kid so I’d be waiting for my dad to come home after his shift because my mam passed away when I was seven, so there are memories that aren’t necessarily hilarious – but they are poignant. Pathos is as important an emotion as a laugh, and I try to mix the two up. What I aim to do is give people a visual experience they can physically feel. Whether that’s making people feel sad or happy, it is great because they’ve felt an emotion. In a way it is similar to the beautifully painted Edward Hopper’s work that featured a lot on the melancholy side of things, but also pushes you to feel a hint of loneliness or sadness in isolation.
If you had to convince someone to head to 'Frank and Joy A Love Story', what would you say to them?
You will definitely be glad you took the plunge, and come away from the exhibition feeling like you've been part of something special.
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