FOR most people, the seventh decade is a time for easing into retirement; looking forward to a more sedate pace of life – maybe even a pipe and slippers.

For Mackenzie Thorpe, not a bit of it. At 62, the Middlesbrough-born artist, loved throughout the world for his poignant, relatable work, has never been busier. It doesn’t make for much time off – not that he’s complaining.

“I’m 62, not 16, so physically and mentally it’s different and the challenges are bigger and stronger,” he says.

“The excitement is sometimes overwhelming and to come up with a new idea and to convey it properly, with passion and dignity and honesty, on the same size paper with the same two hands and the same materials – it’s a big job.

“This is my 30th year in full-time business as an artist so we’re going to celebrate it by doing a tour of Britain, Japan, the United States and Australia – then we got a phone call saying, ‘Would you like to do the Tour de Yorkshire?’, so now, Mackenzie, you’ve got to go to work.”

If he’s surprised at having been chosen as the Tour’s official artist – “I didn’t think there was a chance in hell,” he says, modestly – he must be the only one. The artist famed for his square sheep, who lives in Hove, East Sussex, but whose Arthaus Gallery is based in Richmond, has exhibited from Chicago to Christchurch and been commissioned by Princess Anne, William Hague and the Queen. Even JK Rowling is apparently a fan. Yet he couldn’t have come from an unlikelier background.

Born in post-war industrial Teesside, his path seemed set and, indeed, after leaving school with no qualifications (more of which, later) he started working at Smith’s Dock shipyard. There was a passion in the young Mackenzie, however, that not even a typical working-class upbringing could quell. “When I think about it now, it was total naivety,” he reflects. “I found myself knocking on the art college door in Middlesbrough saying, ‘Can I be an artist?’. I was 20 years old. They said, ‘OK, let’s have a look at your work’ and that was it. I got in.”

After he graduated from Byam Shaw School of Art, in London, the galleries started calling – but Mackenzie, who has always remained loyal to his roots, found his antecedents a disadvantage. Undeterred, he decided to open his own – where his four Tour de Yorkshire works were exclusively revealed last week – and has never looked back. He feels passionately that galleries, and the art they contain, should be accessible to all. It is a mantra to which he attributes his success.

“I get feedback as soon as I step out the door,” he says. “The first time that happened was at a big show at Selfridges. The picture that got most attention was called Never Ending. It’s a boy’s view looking up at the backside of his grandmother. They were all saying, ‘It’s my grandmother’, ‘No, it’s mine’, and I realised what was happening. Everyone was reflecting my work in themselves.”

Far from being precious about this – as other artists might be – Mackenzie embraces it. He sees his art as a gift to others, to interpret as they see fit. “When it comes to my work, between breath and the sky and love, there’s no difference,” he says. “My job is to pick the pastel up and put it on paper. If it could do it itself, it would. There’s no one thing that’s more important – the pastel, the paper or me. We’re all equal. If I take a backseat in the work, then the people can step forward, see themselves, be free to talk about who they are, what they are, laugh or cry if they want to, and know that they’re not going to be judged or blamed.”

This generosity of spirit extends to Mackenzie’s charity work. From the very beginning, every time he’s held a show, part of the proceeds has gone to charity, to “give something back”. Among the causes closest to his heart are forces’ aid organisation Help for Heroes, for which he raised the largest amount of money for a single item at auction – £13,000 – with his depiction of a poppy (it went to Phoenix House, the recovery centre in Catterick Garrison). He also supports provision for dyslexics throughout the world.

“I’m dyslexic, my brother was dyslexic, my father was dyslexic, my grandfather was dyslexic,” he explains. “I used to be sitting in the classroom, scared of getting it wrong – you’re so isolated and lonely – so I drew pictures and the double-edged sword was, I drew better than everybody because that’s all I did. That’s what gave me the strength to go on. You don’t get it in books – you get it by living and doing it.”

Having grown up in a culture of men cycling to work, Mackenzie, who didn’t learn to ride a bike until he was 23 because he was “too scared”, feels especially honoured to be representing the Tour. He’s nostalgic about a bygone era. “It wasn’t something you did for fun,” he says. “When I worked in the shipyards, you’d see all these men on bikes. These weren’t mountain bikes, these weren’t racing bikes, these were cobbled together.

“Now, when I do a bike, it has no spokes, no pedals and the man is standing with no arms, because we’ve taken them away. He was a labourer – strong, powerful, didn’t use computers, didn’t use mobile phones. He will stand there till hell freezes over, proud. I see the bike and that man as a monument to our history and our standing in the world and where we came from. I’ve been drawing bikes for years with that symbol.”

His four new works are entitled Yorkshire Coast, Over Moor and Dale, Riding with Grandad and The Boy Without a Bike, and as a project to mark his 30th anniversary, the commission couldn’t have been more fitting.

“There’s nobody prouder of Yorkshire than me,” says Mackenzie.

“I take Yorkshire all over the world. When I saw a film of last year’s race at the launch, the energy, the power, the passion and the pride; the anxiety, the strength, I was like, ‘I want to be part of this’. It’s like my grandmother used to say, ‘Be careful what you wish for’."

And then he tells me politely that my time is up – he has to go back to work.

  • Details of Mackenzie’s tour to mark his 30th anniversary, along with those of events linked with the Tour de Yorkshire, from May 2-5, can be found at and