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“Celia” by John Petrey

When John Petrey worked in advertising he had two mottos. The first was “Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder,” and the second was “If you can’t have fun, why show up sober?”

It’s not surprising that John had a successful 23-year career as an adman, but at some point things turned on him.

“It’s very high pressure,” he said. He had a Florida studio where he produced commercials with big clients who would often make last-minute changes. “You have to make split-second decisions. I got burned out to where it wasn’t fun anymore.”

John was feeling a different sort of heat when I called him this Tuesday. It’s been in the high 90’s in Chattanooga, TN where he has a new studio that’s nothing like the pressure cooker he left in Florida. This workspace is devoted to art, and there’s not air conditioning or janitor.

Not long after retiring, John started painting and sculpting again. He soon found a second career that’s as big of a commotion as his first. He’s a fashion designer of the most avant-garde variety, crafting miniature dresses and suits from bottle caps, sheet metal, playing cards, yardsticks and/or the kitchen sink. Prêt-à-porter this is not. The artist has shown all across the country, and is making his Santa Fe debut this season at Canyon Road Contemporary Art

“Lori” by John Petrey

It all started with a miniature suit, and then a gown made out of copper with a skirt of vintage barn wood. John built “Doris Day” from a sea of blue bottle caps, and adorned “Joan of Arc” with asphalt shingles that somehow flow like cloth.

“My work is very nostalgia-oriented,” said John. Many of his pieces mirror styles or highlight female heroes from the 1950’s and 60’s, John’s early years. “I didn’t want to use fabric, though. That has already been done.”

The result is a wacky smorgasbord of would-be Pop art; these pieces are a little too sincere and full of quirky individuality to land in Warhol’s camp. Besides, John is less focused on concept than he is on materials and visual effects. The name of the game is trompe l’oiel.

“My rule is that I have to win,” John said. “The viewer will see the dress from a distance, and they’ll think it’s something real. Then they touch it and it’s bottle caps.”

John’s current challenge is a piece for CRCA’s front lawn. It’s an aluminum gown that’s 70 inches tall and looks “ultra contemporary, spacy, a little Jetson’s.” He tends to design as he goes, starting with an initial idea and then puzzling his way through the substructure and exterior of a piece.

All of it, from the flashy facades of the dresses to the relentless promotional schedule that takes John on weeks-long road trips, is informed by his years in advertising. It’s a bittersweet truth.

“I’m really glad I don’t work in the industry anymore,” John said. “But I’m really glad I worked in the industry.”

Go see John Petrey’s work at Canyon Road Contemporary Art, and don’t forget to swing back through when his new outdoor gown comes to town!

BONUS: Here’s a video of John Petrey working in his studio, which he and his wife Peggy fondly call “the man cave.”

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