Middlesbrough artist Mackenzie Thorpe talks to Viv Hardwick about the thrill of his First World War artwork

DESPITE being an artist in demand around the world, Middlesbrough-born MazKenzie Thorpe is determined to maintain his “ordinary bloke” status and is about to release his third book, Out Of The Shadows, which is part-autobiography and part insight into his artistic inspiration.

“This is my third book and the other two have sold out. So, there’s been a demand from galleries and customers, ‘Where’s the next book’,” says Thorpe. “The previous two were big, coffee table books and had museum-quality pictures and we wanted to get away from that to be more MacKenzie Thorpe. Sue, my wife, had the idea of making it more personal. She had a meeting with a book designer and I took a step backwards.”

The artist then found the project involved pictures of him at the age of one, as a teenager in Blackpool, with the Queen, members of the Dad’s Army TV series (“my heroes,” says Thorpe) and Tommy Cooper.

“Everyone has an idea of who I am. I suppose, people like myself who come from Middlesbrough and working class people are seen as, ‘Some up there’. But the people who are up there think I must have come from a wealthy background to have got where I am. But I’m from Middlesbrough and I haven’t changed a bit and that’s what this book shows. It includes the cowboy influences on me as a kid and I still refer to cowboys now and buy toy cowboys. The kids bought we a toy cowboy for Father’s Day,” he says.

Thorpe is a John Wayne fan. “I love the film Rio Bravo and about 5.30am every morning I will watch the Lone Ranger. John Wayne will always be a one-off and every two weeks I watch a John Wayne movie and I’ve been to a pow-wow with native Americans on a reservation and took my son on a guided tour,” says Thorpe, who has also taken part in the gathering of cattle, drovers and wagon trains at Houston Texas.

“They all come in for a rodeo and it takes weeks for thousands of people to come in from all over the state for the biggest rodeo in the world. I got invited to a cook-out and when I arrived it was chucking it down with raid, so they gave me a Stetson and a big yellow coat. I sat by the fire eating jambalaya and watching the people on horses. That’s all in the book because it’s about the boy who created things in his imagination and how I grew up and became the man who went into industry like my father, and grandfather. I talk about that and the way my life has been,” he says.

Australia, Japan and his trips to the US, the lifestyles, people and food he found are important parts of the influences on Thorpe, who has gone on to sell works worth millions.

The Teessider famed for his square sheep in his favourite medium of pastels, who retains his links with the region through his Arthaus gallery in Richmond, is also moving into sculpture.

“I’ve done sculptures that are 20ft tall for a hospital in Oklahoma and I think that’s the future for me. These are commissions and it’s fantastic when someone contacts you to make a piece of art for them,” says Thorpe.

“Picasso said when you’ve made the blueberry cupcake and sold them all, don’t make any more. Make another kind of cake. So that’s what I try to do.”

His most recent commission is from The Northern Echo with a First World War centenary artwork due to raise money for services charities after it’s announced on the Echo’s website on Saturday evening, before featuring on the front cover of a rare Sunday edition to mark Remembrance Sunday this weekend.

“It’s about love and, basically, this is everything I believe in. If you haven’t got love then you might as well jump off (the world),” says the artist, who admits that he carries the dark and light moments of life around with him but feels that family life events like the birth of a child are what mean most to him. All this is packed into 170 pages alongside Thorpe’s favourite quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, John Lennon and Walt Disney.

“The idea is that people from different walks of life and ages and from different experiences will bring their own interpretation on what this book is about,” he says.

He felt the First World War didn’t mean a lot to him as teenager because he was busy getting on with his life. Now, he’s keen to have his new work auctioned for Help The Heroes and has high hopes that it will set an auction record, just like a piece he put forward to the Poppy Appeal two years ago.

“The poppy appeal piece raised more money than anything else at auction over the past 30 years,” Thorpe says.

“If I can put an image on the front page on such an important day I’m going to be so proud and my mum’s going to see it and everybody I know is going to see it. I didn’t care what was going on in my life everything stops. So, I started at 2am and I did the piece and I’d finished it within 48 hours of being asked for it,” he explains after fitting in the Great War commission at the same time as preparing for a big exhibition in Miami which had to be finished a few days ago.

His book (priced from £35 up to £4,000) is out on Tuesday, November 18, and Thorpe will be attending book signings on November 29 in Richmond, 1-4pm (ring 01748-826605) and November 30 at the Dormans Museum, Middlesbrough, 1-3pm.

“The hardest part of the book was coming up with the title. I had all kinds of ideas. Then, I remembered leaving my agents and managers and we went out on our own. It was that jumping off the cliff kind of thing because I’d been 15 years with all kinds of organisations. I heard somebody say, ‘You’ve been out in the shadows and now you’ve come back. I was in St Louis a few weeks ago doing a piece about a sculpture and this person said I’d come back as Mackenzie Thorpe even stronger and that’s why the book is called Out Of The Shadows. For somebody who thinks they know me because they’ve got 15 of my pictures in the house and will see this book and realise that I’m just a bloke.

“I’m not just a fancy artist. I’m just a bloke.”