It was a hometown hero’s welcome for UK artist Mackenzie Thorpe’s exhibition in Middlesborough in the UK’s north east three years ago.
Twelve-foot banners of the renowned artist’s works lined the main street and 25,000 saw the exhibition over three months.
Thorpe’s heart is as big as his reputation as one of the UK’s most sought after artists/sculptors, but there must have been more than a smidge of satisfaction at the reception for someone told he’d never amount to anything.
The first of seven kids born into a working class northern family, his dyslexia went undiagnosed until well into adulthood.
Unable to read or write, he left school at 15 to work in the shipyard, the brutal words of his teacher—a nun—ringing in his ears.
“I would never get a job, never get married, never have children, and if I died today God wouldn’t let me into heaven, because I was useless,” he recalled her saying.
Thorpe’s dented self-confidence took another knock when five years later he was made redundant.
Encouraged by an uncle and a mate he turned up at the local art college, where he was handed an enrolment form.
“I went into a cornfield and cried my eyes out because I couldn’t fill it in,” he tells the Voice.
He did get an interview but was told as he couldn’t read and write he wasn’t wanted.
The interviewing art teacher offered to take a look at the young Thorpe’s work, telling him to get it out while he grabbed a cuppa.
“I filled the whole room, walls, desk, floor.”
The teacher walked back in, put his tea down and walked out to get the arts head, who said, “I don’t care if he is from Mars, I want him in,” Thorpe remembers with a grin.
Fast-forward a few years and when Middlesborough wanted something memorable for the Queen’s jubilee visit, Thorpe was commissioned.
With the blunt honesty the north is well known for he wasn’t fazed chatting to Her Majesty.
“I just met a woman, she had veins on her legs and a lot of make-up,” he says.
When she asked what the painting was about, Thorpe didn’t hesitate.
“I said it’s about the north-east, the poorest community in the UK.”
That put the royal nose a little out of kilter, until he continued, “look around at the people, for a second you are making them forget about their problems.
“She said ‘thank you. Will you have it delivered’?”
Thorpe’s art and sculpture conveys the emotions and hard lives of those he grew up with, and his working class beginnings allow him to communicate across the barriers of age, class, gender and race.
His works now grace the walls of mansions belonging to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John.
Rolling Stone the late Bill Wyman, who hailed from the same region, was struck by a sculpture of a car: “He said, ‘I had a car like that,’” asked to see the artist and then bought the piece.
Perth can see Thorpe’s latest exhibition at Linton & Kay Galleries, St Georges Tce, Perth, until September 3.
by JENNY D’ANGER