In the second part of my new series on art and design related to Sunderland AFC, I’m moving on to look at some of the contemporary artists and works that have emerged in the last few years that place the club at the heart of the cultural renaissance that the city is currently experiencing.
Spurred on by the City of Culture bid a few years, the redevelopment of the area around the Empire Theatre, the Firestation, the Sunnyside festival, the musical hubs of PopRecs and The Bunker, makes things really feel like they’re moving at a breakneck pace in the city.
For an exile like me who bounces in and out of the area a few times a year, there seem to be regular leaps forward toward the creation of a uniquely Mackem cultural vernacular, one that is inextricably linked to football and reflective of the city’s identity.
It was no surprise, therefore, that when Kathryn Robertson’s season card artwork dropped last month, the reaction amongst Sunderland fans was overwhelmingly positive. In our area, there’s no bigger platform for an artist’s work than our football club with its 20,000 season card holders and hundreds of thousands of online followers.
When I suggested to her in my questions for this piece that she’d helped to shift the conversation around renewals for next season, Robertson recognised the impact her work has had:
People have been so nice about the campaign illustrations, like really. I think visual art, illustration, and street art is an easy thing for a lot of people to connect to. It often evokes nostalgia and other emotions in people. It becomes a symbol.
With people being so passionate about football I think they can appreciate any art that’s connected to it. People take notice of things that they know are from the heart.
The headline image from the campaign builds on themes that Robertson has become associated with – a condensed, cartoonised cityscape in black and white but with blocks of a single colour running through it, interspersed with key written messages that draw in the eye.
It features Wearside landmarks from Roker lighthouse to Durham Cathedral with the Stadium of Light right at the centre, reflecting the centrality of the club and the game to the people of the area. Robertson puts it this way:
It’s palpable how important and huge football is to this city, and how huge it is to the north east in general. The whole vibe of Sunderland on match day and beyond rests on it, it’s almost a cliche now, but it’s true. I didn’t always think of it that way but I’ve seen it more in recent years. I believe it is certainly a massive part of the city’s heart.
From artwork for Sunderland bands to murals on the walls of cafes and offices, and of course, on your Vaux beer glass, Mackems have been becoming very familiar with Robertson’s graphic style in recent years:
The quirks of the north east influence me. The strong connections I (and a lot of people) have to their home town. The familiarity of certain places. The lesser looked at or appreciated things. My own emotions. Music sometimes influences me.
[This is one of Kathryn’s Sunderland music choices - not her artwork but an inspiring one]
I have different influences for the different sections of my working practice, when creating something for myself it’s usually driven by emotion, when creating something for a public space I look up to the street artists and people who are bold, when creating illustrations to illustrate a story or a scene I look to comic artists and things like that.
In her Twitter biog, she describes herself as being “in a love-hate relationship with north east England”, and the same can be said with her relationship with the football club, and is why the inclusion of the ground in her work is a new departure for her:
I haven’t always cared as much as I do currently. In recent years I’ve got really into it. I spent quite a few years not caring, or maybe even avoiding it to some extent. Thinking it wasn’t “for” me. When people would ask me to include the stadium or football references in my work I’d tell them it didn’t feel authentic for me to do so when I didn’t care as much as they did.
There’s always a message in her work, sometimes disguised Where’s Wally-style amongst the urban sprawl. “Everything will be alright in the end”, “There is life in these streets”, “The promise of something different”:
My commercial illustration has always been a celebration of place. Most frequently it’s Sunderland at the moment and it’s always meant to be positive and it’s meant to condense recognisable things, so that people can connect to it immediately when they see it.
Illustration like that serves a purpose to grab interest, or simply to decorate, and to become part of the furniture of whatever or wherever it is – whether that’s the brand or the venue or whatever it might be.
In the season card work, the message is both “Haway The Lads” and “Haway The Lasses” - the slogans are depicted as Hollywood-style billboards in front of the SoL. Simple, to the point, and powerful, it’s sending the message that a season card now gets you into both teams’ games:
I’m really glad that we involved ‘Ha’way the Lasses’. Sunderland Ladies are class. Female representation in football is important, young girls need to be aware that football is “for” them, if they want it to be.
Public commissions and musical collaborations are the lifeblood of Robertson’s daily work as an artist. She got started illustrating for bands in the always vibrant local music scene, and after graduating she was asked to paint a mural at Sunderland University where she had studied.
Her presence in the city has grown through works at cafes and workplaces, and with her branding for the re-founded Vaux Brewery. The next big project, with a Sunderland music legend, also draws on her love of the industrial landscapes of the city:
I’m currently working on a project with Dave Stewart. Dave’s written a triple album of original songs linked to a musical film that’s based in Sunderland. The story is loosely based on himself as a teenager in Sunderland in the early ‘70s. I’ve been commissioned to bring some of the songs to life with illustrations. Some of the scenes might be familiar to people, taking inspiration from Sunderland’s past.
Whether it’s football, music, or the industrial landscape of the north east, Robertson’s works speak to that rich cultural vein that stretches back through folk musicians, pitmen painters, and poets, into the hearts of the people.
I recognise her as part of a tradition of depicting our urban environment that also includes the great chronicler of northern working-class life and northern working-class places in the 20th century, LS Lowry.
You can go to the Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery and see his amazing depiction of the River Wear in the 1960s; the scene with which Dave Stewart grew up, and which features in Kathryn’s work for the musical, but sadly is no longer with us.
However, it is artists like Robertson and Frank Styles, who I’ll speak to in Part 3, who are now shaping a new future for our city through their works.