published Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Dressing up Main Street

John Petrey's "Party Dress" can be seen on the sidewalk along Main Street.
John Petrey's "Party Dress" can be seen on the sidewalk along Main Street.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

Growing up in the 1960s, John Petrey said, the United States was entering a state of unrest, but somehow that didn't seem to be reflected on television.

"As a boy, I watched way too much television," said Petrey, a Southside Chattanooga resident. "I grew up in the era where everything was perfect on television. All the TV moms of that era -- Ozzie and Harriet, June Cleaver -- were perfectly dressed and she had her pearls on, and she had her apron on, and she's making dinner and life was perfect."

These memories were the inspiration for Petrey's Dress Series. A copper sculpture of a 1950s-style, full-skirted dress, is an eye-catching element of Main Street public art.

"I see a lot of people looking at it," said Kaelin Wenger, assistant director at the Hart Gallery on Main Street. "I think it's one of the most popular pieces on the street."

Wenger, 22, called the piece iconic and haunting.

"It's an icon from the '50s, but there's no person in it," she said. "It's kind of like haunting, like a dress is there but the person's not. It's like memory of what used to be.

"You don't really see ladies walking around in dresses like that anymore. Our culture is totally different now from what it was back then. I see it as a reminder of the past."

For Petrey, 53, the work is a memory of the way things were, but perhaps weren't really.

"If you analyze television and movies from that era, women never had wrinkles in their clothes," he said. "They were always perfect. Here we were in the '60s, there was a lot happening in the United States. We had the Vietnam War, we had the hippie free-love era, we had racial issues all over the country, but on television, everything was perfect."

Petrey has a background in advertising and marketing. He worked for 23 years as a commercial photographer. The job, he said, required him to create and re-create historical time periods -- a room in a medieval castle, for example.

"My mindset is always working with materials in an alternative way," he said. "I guess you could say it's part of my DNA."

When he was still working in advertising, Petrey began building furniture as a hobby, enjoying the three-dimensionality of the work and the ability to walk in a circle around a product he'd created, rather than just look at it flat on a table.

"It was more therapy than anything for me, but it was something I enjoyed doing," he said.

The affection for three dimensions led him to sculpture.

His background in artistic re-creation of history and having a strong memory of the elements of his own childhood, both realistic and fictional, Petrey said, make his own work "very nostalgic in style."

"I have fond memories of being a kid and where I grew up, and it carries over into what I do."

While the series, which began about five years ago, was originally inspired by his memories of those perfect TV moms, the work has certainly expanded beyond that 1950s aesthetic.

Petrey recently finished a piece for Disney in association with the release of the new Pixar film "Brave." He created a sculpture, he said, of the lead character's medieval gown and cape blowing in the wind. The piece is on display at Disneyland. He also had a showing at the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wis., with work ranging from a Victorian bustled gown to a contemporary kimono piece.

He is currently working on another museum show, ranging from "wild conceptual pieces to more historical pieces," he said. "It continues to grow the more I work with the series."

His creation of garments, typically made from hard metals made to look like soft, pliable fabrics, leads to questions. He said he frequently gets asked whether he designs clothing.

"I don't know how a sewing machine works," he said.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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