In part two of my new series on art and design related to Sunderland AFC, I move on to a look at some of the contemporary artists and works that have emerged over recent years that place the club at the heart of the culture. renaissance that the city is currently experiencing.
Spurred on by the City of Culture bid a few years ago, the redevelopment of the neighborhood around the Empire Theatre, the Firestation, the Sunnyside festival, the musical hubs of PopRecs and The Bunker, really gives the impression that things are moving at breakneck speed. rhythm in the city.
For an exile like me who moves in and out of the area several times a year, there seem to be steady leaps towards creating a cultural vernacular unique to Mackem, inextricably linked to football and reflecting the identity of the town.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Kathryn Robertson’s season card artwork dropped last month, the reaction from Sunderland fans was overwhelmingly positive. In our region, there is no greater platform for an artist’s work than our football club with its 20,000 season cardholders and hundreds of thousands of online followers.
When I suggested to her in my questions for this article that she helped shift the conversation around renewals for next season, Robertson acknowledged the impact of her work:
People have been so kind to the campaign artwork, really. I think visual art, illustration and street art are things that a lot of people can easily connect to. It often evokes nostalgia and other emotions in people. It becomes a symbol.
People being so passionate about football, I think they can appreciate any art related to it. People notice things that they know come from the heart.
The main image of the campaign draws on themes with which Robertson has become associated – a condensed, cartoonish cityscape in black and white but with single-color blocks running through it, interspersed with key written messages that draw the eye.
It features Wearside landmarks, from Roker’s Lighthouse to Durham Cathedral with the Stadium of Light right in the centre, reflecting the centrality of the club and the game to locals. Robertson puts it this way:
It is palpable how important and huge football is to this city, and how huge it is in the North East in general. The whole atmosphere of Sunderland on matchday and beyond rests on it, it’s almost a cliché now, but it’s true. I haven’t always thought of it that way but I’ve seen it more in recent years. I believe it is definitely a massive part of the heart of the city.
From artwork for Sunderland bands to murals on the walls of cafes and offices, and of course, your Vaux pint glass, Mackems has become familiar with Robertson’s graphic style in recent years:
The quirks of the northeast influence me. The strong ties I (and many people) have with their hometown. The familiarity of certain places. The least watched or enjoyed things. My own emotions. Music influences me sometimes.
[This is one of Kathryn’s Sunderland music choices – not her artwork but an inspiring one]
I have different influences for different sections of my work practice, when I create something for myself it’s usually driven by emotion, when I create something for a public space I admire artists from street and bold people, when I create illustrations to illustrate a story or a scene, I look at cartoon artists and things like that.
In her Twitter biog, she describes herself as being “in a love-hate relationship with the North East of England”, and the same can be said with her relationship with the football club, which is why l he inclusion of soil in her work is a new beginning for her:
I haven’t always cared about it as much as I do now. Over the past few years, I’ve really gotten into it. I spent quite a few years not caring about it, or maybe even avoiding it to some degree. Thinking it wasn’t “for” me. When people asked me to include stadium or football references in my work, I would tell them that it didn’t seem authentic to me to do so when I didn’t care as much as they did.
There is always a message in his work, sometimes disguised as Where’s Wally among urban sprawl. “Everything will be fine in the end”, “There is life in these streets”, “The promise of something else”:
My commercial illustration has always been a celebration of place. More often than not it’s Sunderland right now and it’s always meant to be positive and it’s meant to condense recognizable things, so people can connect with it immediately when they see it.
An illustration like this serves to catch the eye, or just to decorate, and to be part of the furniture of anything or anywhere – be it the brand or the place or whatever.
In the work on the seasonal cards, the message is both “Hawaii Guys” and “Haway girls” – Slogans are represented as Hollywood-style billboards in front of the SoL. Simple, precise and powerful, it sends the message that a season card now gives you access to the matches of both teams:
I’m really glad we got ‘Ha’way the Lasses’ involved. The ladies of Sunderland are classy. Female representation in football is important, young girls need to be aware that football is ‘for’ them, if they want it.
Public commissions and musical collaborations are the cornerstone of Robertson’s daily work as an artist. She began illustrating for groups in the still vibrant local music scene, and after graduating she was asked to paint a mural at the University of Sunderland where she had studied.
His presence in the city grew through work in cafes and workplaces, and with his branding for the revamped Vaux brewery. The next big project, starring a Sunderland music legend, also taps into his love of the city’s industrial landscapes:
I’m currently working on a project with Dave Stewart. Dave has written a triple album of original songs linked to a Sunderland-based musical film. The story is loosely based on himself as a teenager in Sunderland in the early 70s. I was tasked with bringing some songs to life with artwork. Some of the scenes may be familiar to people, drawing inspiration from Sunderland’s past.
Whether it’s football, music or the industrial landscape of the Northeast, Robertson’s works speak to this rich cultural vein that stretches back through folk musicians, pitmen painters and poets, into the hearts of people.
I recognize her as part of a tradition of portraying our urban environment that also includes the great chronicler of northern working life and northern working class places in the 20th century, LS Lowry.
You can go to the Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery and see its stunning depiction of the River Wear in the 1960s; the scene that Dave Stewart grew up with and that features in Kathryn’s work for the musical, but is sadly no longer with us.
However, it is artists like Robertson and Frank Styles, whom I will discuss in Part 3, who are now shaping a new future for our city through their works.