“I was the oldest of seven children, born into a three-bedroomed council house in Middlesbrough. My father was a labourer, with no trade or qualifications. There was no luxury. Three pennies a week would be my pocket money – if I got any. But at that age you don’t know you’re poor. I thought where I lived was the biggest town in the world, like any other kid does. I’ve always drawn. And when I drew, I’d go into my own world. I’d spend my time getting cigarette packets, unwrapping them, flattening them and drawing on them. I’d just draw and draw. I knew I was going to be a painter. I think I was eleven when I saw, ‘Lust for Life’, the film about Van Gogh. I really identified with Van Gogh, especially in the scene where everyone is shouting at him, making fun of him. That sort of thing happened to me all the time because I didn’t fight back. Nobody understood me. And I didn’t even know what it was they couldn’t understand.
I left school at fifteen. I couldn’t get any qualifications because of my dyslexia. I did all sorts of jobs, working on ships up and down the Tees, often on the dole. It was a bad time for me, and I was really unhappy. One day a friend suggested I go along to the art college. My application form was terrible, the spelling was all wrong and it was clear enough that I couldn’t write essays. But I had literally thousands of drawings. At that time I used to carry an old school blackboard around on my back. I fixed a drawing board onto it, and some haversack straps. I was out at six in the morning drawing in parks, everywhere. And because I had this huge pile of work there was no problem at the college – I was in!
I had no confidence at all when I started there. If somebody had said I was blue I’d have believed them. I put all my gear in a bag with ‘Karate’ written on the sides so people would think I was some kind of martial arts expert and leave me alone! Seeing the paintings at the Tate Gallery for the first time changed my whole way of thinking. From then on I just ate and drank modern art. Rothko, especially, is one of my real heroes. I realized how important it was to put myself, Mackenzie Thorpe, into my paintings.
When I first set up the Art Haus shop things were very difficult again. There was problems with money and a lot of local people were putting down my work. That’s when I did the first ‘square sheep’. It just came to me, I don’t know why. But I knew straight away why it was square. Sexism, racism, homophobia, bigotry, conformity, that’s what it represented. Soon though, the sheep came to mean something different, to do with my family, my wife and kids. My family is one of the biggest influences on me now. I’ll draw a picture and it’ll be so bright, I’ll like it so much that I’ll call it ‘Owen’ or ‘Chloe’ or ‘Susan’, because I want them to have it, it’s for them. I work here in my shop, with this big wide window. Everyone can see in, see what I do – where are no tricks! It’s not a gift from God, I’m just a normal bloke doing my job, like anybody else. Sometimes my life has been a dark tunnel, but a dark tunnel can be very productive. You’ve got to do your best to come out at the other end. I’m fighting all the time in my pictures. But there’s lots of fun in them too. All sorts of bad things have gone on, but I’m here, I’ve survived. I believe that there is hope, and that you can be happy if you work at it.
If you see a flower, look at it, paint it – but don’t pick it, don’t hurt it! That’s the kind of innocence I’m trying to get across.”