HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Mackenzie Thorpe's Art "From the Heart"

When it mattered most, a caring teacher gave this now-famous artist with dyslexia the support he needed to pursue his passion.

By Linda Broatch, M.A. , Mackenzie Thorpe

Once, Mackenzie Thorpe's world felt so small that he couldn't imagine a happy place for himself in it. But at the age of 21, after six years in the workforce, he decided to quit his job as a shipyard laborer in northern England, so that he could pursue his passion for drawing and painting. Although the path was rough, his world expanded at every turn.

Now an internationally renowned artist, he spent much of his childhood and young adulthood battling the humiliation and despair caused by unidentified dyslexia. Like many dyslexic adults of his generation, Mackenzie, who was born in 1956, was ridiculed as a child by teachers and peers as "thick" and "lazy" because of his reading disability. He remembers taking refuge in drawing - "anything and everything." Because his family had little money - he was the oldest of seven children and his father worked in the shipyards - his sketch pads were whatever he could scrounge for free, often cigarette packages.

Very much against the odds, Mackenzie's creative energy survived those early struggles. "There's something inside," he says. "I don't know what it is. I believe I've got a job to do. When I was in the shipyards, cleaning out the hull of a ship, or whatever I was doing, I believed, 'I shouldn't be doing this; I'm supposed to be doing something else.' And finally I said, 'I'm not doing this anymore.'"

Encounter with a Supportive Teacher

After leaving the shipyards, he attended a local arts-based college that emphasized vocational training. One day, after several months of classes, in a state of exhaustion and overwhelming frustration with his studies, he collapsed at school. "I literally hit the deck," he recalls. "And this teacher found me, and he gave me a cup of sweet tea. I started crying, and I told him, 'I want to be an artist!' Because at this school you had to do everything but art - you made furniture, you made toys, you made films. Everything was geared to getting a job."

That was how he met the adult who became his "guru" and helped change the direction of his life. The teacher told him to come to his office the next day. "I went in," Mackenzie says, "and he told me, 'There's ten pounds (about $20). Go get me some fruits and vegetables. There are three canvases over there. [Using the fruits and vegetables as subjects,] I want you to paint me a Degas, a Cézanne, and a Thorpe." He gave Mackenzie three weeks to complete the paintings, excusing him from all his regular classes.

Mackenzie worked diligently on the paintings at night after classes were over, and in the mornings between 5 and 9. "He came in when I was right at the end of the assignment," he remembers, "and he said, 'All right, son, there's a college in London (Byam Shaw Art College), the only college like this in the country. You don't have to be able to read and write and speak Japanese; as long as you can draw, you're in. "

"And he said to me, 'You know, Mackenzie, other people can talk better than you or they can write better. Maybe they can draw more accurately than you can, but they're not going to be artists because they haven't got the imagination. They can't go to that kind of school - and none of them will work as hard as you.' So, he made a massive difference in my life."

Before his artistic gifts were recognized and encouraged by this compassionate teacher, Mackenzie says he often felt almost invisible - as though he had no face. "I used to walk around believing that I didn't have a face, that I didn't have a shadow. And when some people in my life like my wife - she must have been one of the first people - said I had a face, I didn't believe them. It was like I didn't think I was good enough to have one. When you see my work [depicting people] with no faces, that's because I didn't believe I had one. "

Not all of the humans and animals depicted in Mackenzie's paintings and sculptures are faceless - far from it. Sometimes bold, bright, and whimsical, sometimes muted and somber, his work expresses a full range of human feelings. In some paintings, tiny, hunched over people are dwarfed by a smoky industrial landscape like the one he grew up in. In other works, a round, sunny face dominates the piece. The title of a book about his art, Mackenzie Thorpe: From the Heart, captures the essence of his work.

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.