Mackenzie Thorpe is as unassuming and ordinary as his art is powerful and extraordinary. He is a man of the people who happens to be a world-class artist. Fast-talking and quick-witted with a cheerful countenance and Northern English brogue, he's the sort of chap who can be found drinking pints and watching football in pubs throughout England.
The son of a laborer and an auxiliary nurse, Thorpe was raised in post-war Middlesbrough, a world where a promising future was defined as a steady job that paid a living wage. Undiagnosed dyslexia rendered him inept at academics but, early on, Thorpe was compelled to express himself through art, drawing and painting on anything he could get his hands on, even cigarette packs. Rolf Harris' televised art program held the young Thorpe spellbound week after week, providing bits of light and hope in an otherwise dreary existence.
At 15, Thorpe left school to work the local shipyards, but soon left to pursue a career in art. Encouraged by a teacher, he received his first big break at 21 when he won a place in the Byam Shaw School of Art in London.
Much of Thorpe's body of work depicts images inspired by his early years in Middlesbrough. Arthaus, his gallery and studio, is located in nearby Richmond, which is where Thorpe first displayed a painting depicting the square sheep for which he's now well known, a piece he referred to as "a self-portrait." In some paintings, he contrasts dark industrial scenes with striking skylines; in others, jubilant children — often without faces — tote gigantic hearts or play with puppies. Thorpe has said the faceless children represent the way he felt in his youth. Rudimentary, yet highly texturized and vibrant paintings, such as "In Mist," reveal the beauty he sees in the mundane. Others, like "Through Shadows," fixate on a singular beacon of love in the darkest place in the world.
"I try to put everything in each piece," Thorpe said. "The sun's not out, it's always grey, but the kid sits there with a smile on their face."
In addition to his painting, over the past 12 years, Thorpe has created a large body of three-dimensional art using bronze and resin. Rather than beginning a sculpture with an image in mind, he works with the material until it reveals the piece within.
"It's a bit dark, but … you're moving the clay, and the boy's face turns around and comes alive," he said.
Now at the top of his career, Thorpe maintains his accessibility and down-to-earth nature, although these days he travels the world and rubs elbows with the likes of celebrities and queens. He was the only artist commissioned to create a piece, which he titled "Stockton Celebrates," for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Asked what it was like to meet Queen Elizabeth II during the Jubilee festivities, he said, "It really was just like meeting a woman." It's obvious he also considers himself just another person, albeit one who off-handedly mentions getting advice from an international superstar.
"Elton John … he said to me, ‘Mackenzie, when you get to the top, make sure you're not alone, because it's the loneliest, scariest place in the world.' "
Throughout his career, Thorpe has worked extensively with disadvantaged children, often through the Mackenzie Thorpe Foundation, which his website says he created based on a piece titled "No One to Catch Me."
Thorpe recalled the raw emotion he experienced working to put on an art show with inner-city children in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "The majority have witnessed one of their family shot and to see them with white shoes and white socks, and almost dressed up like a wedding to see their work that they worked really hard for. It's amazingly rewarding."
"Why do we do bad things to the most innocent people on the planet?" he asked. "It's our job to keep the smile on their face."
Through his work, Thorpe tries to rekindle the smiling, childish whimsy in all humankind. "When they're 25, I want them skipping down the market aisle," he said. It's a safe bet that he will be skipping along beside them.
The sculpture "The Lock Picker" will premiere along with a large collection at Avondale Artworks beginning Oct. 1. Asked what he is most looking forward to about his visit, Thorpe, who has been showing in Jacksonville for more than a decade, laughed, "The popcorn shop. It sells chocolate popcorn and we can't get anything like that in Britain."