by Estill Curtis Pennington
Bill Petrie was a native of northern Kentucky, growing up in Grant County, where his family had very deep roots. Grant County is a land of ridges topped by narrow roads from which one has the prospect of plunging small valleys, or hollows, which speak the geology of the Ohio River’s close proximity. During most of his adult life he lived in a house which he himself had built from an old shed on his family farm, a rambling affair of rooms at various levels, with a top floor studio where he worked in boiling summer and freezing winter without the gracious amenities of central heat and air.
One of the most important undercurrents in Bill’s art sprang from the great bond he felt with his family. Extremely close to both his mother and father, he cherished their stories of youth, misadventure, wisdom hard come by and folly happily repeated with great frequency. From that background he emerged with a deep, innate appreciation for one of the South’s strongest cultural traditions, the well-told story The great Virginia writer Ellen Glasgow speaks of an “interior world thickly woven of recollections” and to that world many of Bill’s best paintings belong.
After a brief freshman stint at Morehead State University in eastern Kentucky, Bill returned home and attended Northern Kentucky University His collegiate paintings and his first works after graduation impart the spirit of prevailing trends in non-representational art, a form for which the young artist seems to have had very little feeling. An awkward and blurred quality in his early drawings reveals an interest in the figure which would become refined and developed throughout the course of his career.
In the early 1970s Bill lived in New York and made an effort to break into the art world. But he was not a city boy and returned to the home where he felt he truly belonged, rural Kentucky.
From the accounts of friends who knew him well during the early 1980s it would seem that Bills artistic production slowed down as he became increasingly involved in farm work and an expanding network of close connections. He raised tobacco and cattle. During the late 1980s he returned to painting with a renewed vigor, a vigor sustained in part by an intensely political nature. A devoted member of the Kentucky Democratic Party, he went on marches, got involved in state, local and national campaigns, passed out leaflets, and wrote letters to the editors.
His work from this period has a kinetic, cartoonish quality, depicting screaming angels and talking cows, landscapes lit by shooting stars, unearthly creatures under the spell of mammoth hearts beating wildly in the sky over their heads, and scenes of jocular camaraderie in country and western bars. Many of the polemical paintings are really political cartoons that portray his fervent respect for the first amendment. Regarding freedom of expression as the Specific terrain of creative endeavor, he feared that the organized efforts of the religious right would result in a mindless intolerant world, preoccupied with conformity at the expense of individual expression. Representational political polemic is nothing new in the art world. From Goya’s savage prints to Keith Haring’s anonymous dancing victims. artists have often sought to put their message across by jarring semiotic means.
As Bill increased his painting activity, two important themes began to emerge in his art: a sensitive regard for the landscape and a mischievous delight in fantastic events. His landscape paintings deploy his wildly vivid color sensibility, expressing a clearly romantic appreciation for the unrivaled beauties of the panoramic Kentucky setting. In these works the artist painted trees bending in the wind, clouds racing madly across the sky and the steep green hillsides of his native terrain. Light in these works is brightly unclouded, evocative of a crisp brisk day in early autumn or late spring. Tremendously clear, they are manifestations of a love for nature uncompromised by housing developments, industrialization or even the human presence.
At the same time, his figurative work began to draw upon his affection for the natural setting as a backdrop for his compulsively raucous delight in telling stories of enchantment and wonder. One harmonious blue-green painting features a young man wading into the Kentucky River, flashes of light dancing about his head. The painting has tremendous presence. suggesting something of the sanctity and beauty of the scene, serenely conveying the edenic quality of the man, an Adam of the Bluegrass.
Several other paintings from this period illustrate his expanding talent as a storyteller. In “Dog Thief,” an Appollonian young man races away from a screaming crowd of spectators, a happy, panting collie dog in his arms, toward an unknown destiny. Another small painting from this time depicts a housewife bending over the sink, a crying baby at her feet, an angel in the farmyard, a starry halo about her head. ” Stars for Her Crown ” has the aura of a medieval icon, the narrative conveyed in the sharply delineated confines of the picture plane which sets the image apart from worldly concern. The message is quite clear – family life, and the commitment to family constitute a saintly act carried out in the face of adversity, over which the mother is always triumphant.
Between 1992 and 1994 Bill lost both his parents, and channeled his grief into paintings of their family life, producing a series of richly layered, narrative works. “Red Cap” recounts an episode from his mother’s youth. She is seen riding down to a creek, and coming upon a young man emerging from a swim. The sunny guileless youth stands before us, unaware of the woman on horseback in the background. We are left to wonder at this humorous reversal of the saga of Susannah surprised at her bath by the lascivious elders. Bill’s mother is also painted in the act of popping an ” egg sucking cat ” over the head with a broom while baby Bill howls in the barnyard. The same baby is to be seen being exchanged for a cheap strand of beads by his sister, who is handing him over to a gypsy woman whose colorful caravan awaits them in the road outside.
Several of these paintings appeared in the “Vividly Told” exhibition at the Morris Museum of Art in 1994. That exhibition brought together a diverse group of works by artists who continue to participate in the Southern traditions of storytelling and grotesque fantasy. Many of the artists selected have been deemed “magic realists”, a term first applied to several Dutch painters after the second world war. Magic realism uses intensely representational depictions of familiar objects in fantastic settings to impart the ironies and inconsistencies in ordinary everyday life. One of Bill’s journal entries articulates his awareness of the artist’s role as an observer of inconsistency “An artist,” he wrote, “must glimpse (not understand) the paradox of life before he dares call himself an artist.”
One critic who reviewed “Vividly Told” found no “limitations of naivete mingled with sophisticated disillusionment” in Bill’s “straightforwardly naive depictions of childhood fears and fantasies…… While this critic seemed to be appreciative of Bill’s lack of guile, he found his art to be “reminiscent of self-taught painting the world over……” His paintings were indeed one of the hits of the exhibition, perhaps because of the engaging poignancy wiggling across the surface of his lively narratives.
While appreciative, the critical remarks in Art Papers speak more to the sophisticated misgivings of our own age than to a great strength in the artists style. Bill Petrie was never self-consciously naive, nor did he deliberately adopt a self-taught style. As a passionate ideologue, Bill sincerely held deep notions about the world that he very much wanted to communicate through his art. His paintings were illustrations of his beliefs and his passions .Seeing the jaunty cartoonish quality in his work as “naive” misses an important point in his art.Boldness of relief and a kinetic presence on the picture plane were expressive devices by which the artist communicated the vulnerability he felt when telling a personal story. Figures dancing about upon his picture plane want to jump out and grab us, hugging us in delight, harping at us about their ideas.
William Wordsworth, in his “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality,” speaks of “years that bring the philosophic mind.” At the time of his death at age 44 in 1995, Bill Petrie had not yet reached that level of consciousness. He was still so excitedly painting stories, and it may well be that the immediacy of his longing to create, and the relative isolation of his studio, kept him outside the social construct of the art world, unaffected by a certain consensus on appropriate stylistic modes.
In what would prove to be last two years of his career, Bill made several trips to Greece. His paintings of Mediterranean beaches and ancient ruins are postcards from a delighted traveller. He often spoke of the impact of Mediterranean light and color upon his own palette. His colors had always been very bright and bold, though sometimes rather harsh and grating in their juxtapositions. After his Grecian visits his entire sense of blue, green, tourmaline, aqua and turquoise emerged in color harmonics of a much deeper, richer hue.
This deeper, richer sense of color served his last paintings very well and gives a clear indication that his most mature phase was at hand. One of his last works is a fantasy on the theme of that great Southern cultural icon, Elvis Presley. In “St. Elvis on the Burning Train,” Elvis sits in a small private compartment with a portable record player on his lap listening to an early recording. Outside the train window the landscape rushes by with the usual Petrie spark and dazzle. Stars first ignited by Van Gogh twinkle in the sky. Elvis looks very serious, contemplating the unheard ballad with a pensive air of quiet resolve. Here is the Southern Orpheus on his way to an unknown destination, looking neither back nor ahead, but contemplating the manifestation of his own art. Due to Bill’s untimely, accidental death, this painting would prove to be his swan song.
When an artist dies at a relatively early age, before widespread public notice or critical attention, it becomes difficult to assess the significance of his career without a certain amount of wishful thinking. Bill had already created a body of work which implies a connection to several important Southern cultural themes: love of family, joy in the well-told story, the frank ability to be creative outside sanctioned locales, without a sanctioned academic vocabulary of style, and seemingly without an interest in critical approval. These are themes which might be applied to William Faulkner writing away in Oxford, Mississippi, or Mary T. Smith hauling up lengths of industrial metal sheeting to use as a painting surface, or George Dureau arranging his French Quarter studio for a photo shoot.
Romantic sentimentality might lead us to believe that had he lived, Bill would have been one of the truly notable artists in the South. Since we have not been given that vantage, all we have left to measure are those works which so wonderfully demonstrate the vitality of his personal vision. We can only conclude that this fine young painter left us a brilliant view into a lively world peopled by a variety of individuals and extraordinary events. No matter how he might have matured as a painter, the works at hand remind us that he could always see beautifully.