Sculptor Loves Life on Chattanooga’s Southside
Sculptor John Petrey can’t believe his good fortune. About seven years ago he opened his studio on Chattanooga’s Southside, a gritty district with rundown, hollow buildings.
Now the Southside is a hub of creativity for artists, shopkeepers, and residents. He’s thinking about opening a gallery among the ethnic cuisine restaurants, brew pubs, boutiques, art centers and swanky condos.
John watched the transformation from his front door. He lives and works on Main Street, the primary corridor of the Southside.
John’s career in the fine arts began with a shirtwaist dress sculpture. He drew inspiration from the “dress-with-pearls” look of 1960s TV sitcoms, such as “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” One dress turned into a successful line of clothing sculptures.
His dress sculptures have bottle caps and poker chips on the blousy tops. The skirts shimmer with glossy playing cards, ceiling tin, aluminum flashing, and copper sheeting. Yardsticks, house siding, asphalt shingles, and weathered barn wood also form skirts. Gas station numbers from the 1960s add trim to the dress tops.
“I was not going to make dresses out of fabric. That had already been done,” says John.
Why dresses? “I watched a lot of TV when I was growing up,” says John. His mother owned a beauty salon, and after school he spent the remainder of the afternoon watching sitcoms at the shop until she closed for the day. He kept in his head the “dress-with-pearls” look worn by the TV moms, and years later the shirtwaist dress spilled out in his studio.
The cultural icons catch a lot of attention at art shows and galleries across the country. The dress sculptures are in the collections of a Russian billionaire with a French chateau, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, art patrons with boldface names, and celebrities with contemporary art leanings.
John is represented by 11 galleries in top-drawer arts destinations such as Santa Fe and Miami, and his work has graced the color pages of prestigious arts magazines, such as American Style. A dress sculpture purchased by the Tennessee Arts Commission made a visit to the Governor’s Mansion in Nashville.
He continues to sculpt dresses, though now they may be gowns instead of shirtwaist. “They are ultra contemporary historical gowns,” says John, describing them as part armor and part seduction. Over the years he has created other works, including a giant cobalt blue rhinoceros pull toy sculpture sitting at Coolidge Park. It is part of Chattanooga’s public/private arts initiative.
At 55, he may be ready to make another shift in his career. “I don’t know what I am doing next. I don’t know what I will be when I grow up. I don’t know where my work will go,” says John. For many years he was a commercial photographer working on large national accounts like Pepsi, Red Lobster and Arby’s. He closed his photo studio in 2003. The Southern California native lived in Orlando before coming to Chattanooga through the ArtsMove Program, an artist relocation incentive.
Lately he has been building a line of functional fine craft furniture made from castoff industrial materials. He goes to auctions and scrounges around salvage yards to find his raw material. A new lease on life came to four 1940s steel stools. Factory machinery supports lumber beams now being sold as dining tables.
“I’m always looking for things,” says John, reeling off stories about finding boxes of leather key chains and 6,000 yard sticks. “I buy stuff nobody wants.”
He and his wife, Peggy, a jewelry artist and graphic designer, enjoy the sense of community they feel living on Southside. They participate in the Mainx24 block party. The 24-hour festival gives merchants and residents an opportunity to show off the positives of their part of town.
“We may be opening a gallery down the street. I’m leaning toward a small furniture and fine craft gallery,” says John, who runs down the list of cool places that have sprung up around South Main in recent years. His studio is open by appointment only.
Enzo’s Market is a trendy grocery store with a deli people love. The Flying Squirrel restaurant has become the “go to” place for Sunday brunch, and Niedlov’s bakery has a loyal clientele. At the Jump Park, a trampoline fun center, families bounce around until they’re bounced out. Area 61 and the HART Gallery sell art works and handcrafted furniture.
“We have this change happening on the Southside,” John says. “We’re really happy to see this area get going again.” He jokes about how old neighborhoods don’t come to life again until artists move in, and before too long, the neighborhoods get too expensive for them.
“I do art because I really, really enjoy what I do. It’s really fun. I constantly chase opportunities, constantly build new work.”