visual artist, studio, metal dress sculptures
Artist Interviews

Garment-Themed Sculptor John Petrey

Garment-themed Sculptor, John Petrey is a visual artist who fuses the symbolism of his 50’s and 60’s childhood memories with everyday materials. His whimsical and often vintage style offers complex art pieces that beg to be studied and pondered. His work ethic, drive, and unique work have brought him success as a dress sculptor in a class of his own.

In the past 12 years, John’s sculptured apparel has become well known nationally. He has work in private, public, and corporate collections and is represented by 10 galleries throughout the US. Born in the late ’50s, his art influence originates from the tv shows and movies he watched from that era where families were perfect and everything felt safe.

Portrait of sculptor John Petrey at home

Adopted as an only child in San Diego, at the age of 5, his John’s moved to Hemet in Southern California near Palm Springs where he grew up. His father worked in underground infrastructure subdivision construction and his mom owned a beauty salon. He had a happy childhood and feels fortunate having had parents who prioritized their family time together. Many of his childhood memories are hidden within his work or through the creation process. He reminisces how he and his dad restored old cars, and built a car from the ground up that Disney bought for the movie “Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo.” That experience and nurturing is a big part of who he is today, and he believes all parents should foster their children’s creativity at a young age.

John Petrey on a tricycle as a small child.
John Petrey on a tricycle as a small child.

John received a degree in Graphic Design from Mt. San Jacinto College and a Commercial Photography degree from Brooks Institute. After college in the early ’80s, he moved to Orlando, Florida to open a commercial photography studio.  He specialized in food and liquor advertising as well as sports celebrity endorsement work with Golf and Baseball.

When I met John in Orlando in the 90’s he was one of the top Commercial Photographers in the area. At that time he was shooting ad campaigns and menus for Red Lobster & Olive Garden through Darden Restaurants. He was also making custom “art furniture” and restoring vintage motorcycles. 

John worked in advertising for 24 years as a photographer. When he finally got fed up with the industry and the migraine headaches caused by the stress, he closed his studio in 2003 to pursue sculpture professionally.

Embossed aluminum, graffiti painted aluminum license plate dress sculpture

In 2006 John and his wife Peggy purchased a city block in what is now known as the arts district on the southside of Chatanooga, Tennessee. They used a portion of the land to build their living quarters with their connected studio space. Their purchase proved to be a great financial investment, they have been able to sell off what they don’t need to developers as the area continues to be revitalized. He and his wife are both very active in their arts community.

“I have realized that living and working in the same space as a workaholic sometimes I have to walk away and do something else to clear my mind. It gives me a break from feeling like I have to create a piece of art.” -John Petrey

Graffiti embossed aluminum sculptured dresses

John is not one to sit still for very long. As a visual learner, he keeps screenshots of online ideas to help him brainstorm new concepts. Making a written note or saving an online idea allows him to remember the elements he wants to use for his work. With no career background in fashion, he often uses the memories of his youth for inspiration.

Tiffany patina copper, dried willow branch, dress sculpture

John never works on one piece at a time, he is constantly searching, collecting, and organizing materials to use in his art. He takes notes on each piece he creates and can accurately estimate how many of the same items he will need to complete a piece based on size. 

aluminum, roofing nails, red bottle cap, and miniature playing card dress sculptures

Often clients and friends from across the US contact him when they come across items they think he might be able to use in his art. He buys cases of items direct from manufacturers and sometimes has help from a friend in the architectural salvage business. Most of the found items involve a lot of tedious prep such as cleaning, priming, drilling, and painting before they can be incorporated into his work.

Blue, orange, white patina copper American West dress sculpture

The essence of John’s art is derived from the desire to spark or trigger fond memories of either childhood or children. He wants the collector to experience happiness each time they are in the presence of his art. He works closely with his clients on commissioned work to be sure he can incorporate and capture the essence of their memories into a piece. Using their ideas, stories, and photos he assembles the pieces into a representation of their memory that brings his clients joy. 

Tiffany patina copper, vintage yardstick dress sculpture

John begins each sculpture by constructing a base structure using resin, fiberglass, Bondo filler, and steel before shaping the repurposed materials around the base of the frame. The work takes shape with large quantities of repurposed items such as rulers, tin, poker chips, bottle tops, playing cards, and license plates. In the past, he tried hiring helpers but found that the stress of scheduling tasks around his work while in the zone often broke his concentration so he prefers to work alone.

Bottle caps, graffiti painted aluminum license plate

John’s top sellers from his Dress series are 27 inches tall representing girls and boys that he calls his “toddlers.” New collectors like them best because they fit a price point and are easy to display. He references his 13-14-year-olds as his “junior girls,” running between 59-64 inches tall. 

Artist with drill creating a metal dress sculpture

John’s larger lifestyle pieces include a 68-inch version and his 6 feet tall larger-than-life adult females. They are more complex and offer “a wow factor.” He loves these most because he can create more flow within his metalwork. 

“It is fun to see the surprise in the eyes of my guests light up when they see the materials my dresses are made from at my shows. I love seeing what they are drawn to!”  -John Petrey

Red bottle caps, aluminum, vintage shoe tag dress sculpture

John says marketing was not an issue as an artist when he transitioned because of his 24 years of self-promotion as a photographer. He would find out who the gallery director was and put a custom self-promo piece together and mail it to them directly to draw their attention to his work. He also worked at some outdoor art festivals to test the waters, to see how his work was accepted and what people gravitate towards.

“I firmly believe everyone has creativity in them, you just have to be willing to make mistakes and find your path.” -John Petrey

Poker chips, dice, playing cards, soda cans, plastic ware dress sculptures

John’s newest Hunter series is based on the premise that we are living in a civilization that is destroying the planet through pollution. He is creating work where human-animal hybrids come to be the dominant force of reclaiming the planet before there is nothing left. Partially inspired by the 2013 film The 100, as well as other futuristic films, John is enjoying the process of developing his characters through imagination.

The Hunter series was originally conceived for the 2020 gallery show at Art Miami during Miami Art Week, an iconic yearly international modern and contemporary art fair. Wanting to create tension from the viewer as they walked through the entrance of the show, John planned to produce 5 lifesized sculptures. Unfortunately, the show was canceled due to Covid, but he is hoping to introduce them this year depending on what happens in the months ahead. He has used the slow down from COVID-19 to allow his ideas to simmer and grow.

Metal sculpture The Hunter
Hunter Series

John recently discovered through an Ancestry DNA search that he has 7 half brothers from his birth family and he is spending time getting to know them. He also learned that his birth mother is still alive and although he has not spoken to her was surprised to find that she is a painter. As for the future, John admits he may change what he creates but he will always find things to turn into something else as an artist.

“To this day I find the different connections each person is drawn to in my work fascinating and I love hearing their stories of why because they all come from their memories as a child or from children in their lives.” -John Petrey

In my artist interview with John, he shares his path to where he is today, his technique, and offers some great insight for other artists trying to grow their careers. The Creative Push interview is below!

You can find out more about John and his work on his website.

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There is much more on the way!!

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Photographer, artist, writer and educator, Sheri Oneal views life as a blank canvas, a story waiting to be told. Her desire is to help others find motivation and purpose through creativity.

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