Jeffery Earl Petrich was my neighbor, my friend, and my mentor. Sadly, he passed away earlier this year from cancer. As I look back on 2014, it is good to take a moment to remember Jeff.
Jeff moved in to the upstairs apartment next door in Spring 2009. The guy that owned the house rarely spoke to any of us neighbors. Jeff, on the other hand, was quick to introduce himself and make small talk whenever he saw me out working in the garden. As the summer progressed and the tomatoes grew bigger, he tipped me in on pruning the "clones" (as he referred to them) to help the fruit grow bigger. Jeff said he used to be a gardener in New Mexico, Maastricht Holland, and else where. He said he was an artist, a writer, that he traveled the world. He said a lot of things. I don't know what all is true and what is "Jeffin", as my friends and I referred to his entertaining but barely believable stories.
For a bit, Jeff had a job delivering City Pages around Minneapolis. His favorite part of town was near Hennepin and Washington in Downtown. He knew everyone at the strip clubs, the Gay 90s, Sex World, Cuzzies, the smoke shops, and any vestigial remnant of the "old Downtown" he used to haunt. He told me about how things used to be - about hustling pool at Moby's, the old West Bank hangouts and the Bohemian Flats where all the "real" hippys used to live. He told stories of his buddies dropping canoes in North Minneapolis and paddling stoned out of their minds all the way to Fort Snelling (he called it the "Inner City Canoe" club). He told me about hanging out with Ramon Muxter, about growing up with Scott Seekins, some dude only referred to as "Zero", and a pantheon of characters (I eventually even got to meet some of them).
Jeff was a very social guy. He made friends (and enemies) wherever he went. Jeff always ran around with cheap disposable Kodak point and shoot cameras. He took pictures of everyone and everything. He had stacks of photos at his place. Most times hanging out with him, he'd run home and return with a random stack of photos. All these characters from his stories would come to life - Zero, Muxter, the Somali women on the way to Palmers (he loved the Somali women). He was like a 35mm analog version of Instagram. Sometimes it was recent photos of people at the coffee shop I knew. Sometimes, it was photos from way back... of his family, living in the desert.
He told me about his kids. He loved his kids - Billy and Butchy. He loved their mothers. He wished he could be more of a part of their lives. His voice always filled with a twinge of regret when it came to family, except for his father. He loved to tell stories about what a great man his father was. His father immigrated from Slovinia to the Duluth area. He was a hard working guy who was a school teacher, turned teachers union leader, turned mayor of South St. Paul. He rarely talked about his mother unless prompted.
- An old photo of Jeff
Quite the Resume
Jeff would talk about how his dad was "always on his ass" about Jeff doing something with his life. Jeff prided himself on skipping out of Vietnam. He had a weird sense of personal honor. A famous "Jeffism" was that he "never picked up dogshit, never logged into a computer, nor took the light rail". He eventually started taking the light rail (he got numerous fines for not buying a ticket). He talked about getting set up with his first job out of college with 3M in New York selling office supplies. He quit within a week. He wasn't cut out for a job meant for "squares".
After a bit, he no longer had the City Pages delivery gig. He caught wind of an artist modeling job for the U of M. Being averse to computers, he asked me to help him apply. It was one of the more surreal experiences I have had. I quickly discovered that the 3M job was one of his few "real jobs". Every other job had a tangential story associated with it that turned into a story worth an article on its own. He was an art teacher at Marcy free school for a bit. He guest lectured at MCAD for a bit on the topic of "found object environmental installation" (which he practiced with the gardens adjoining our yards). He painted houses for a few years. He was a nude drawing model at some point. He was a story teller. "Just write 'artist'! Isn't that good enough?" Some of the things he wanted to list were more for shock value. "You can't put that as a skill, Jeff"
- Katie and Jeff on my wedding day
As a wedding gift, Jeff wanted to re- landscape my yard. Jeff had torn up his own yard and made it quite interesting and beautiful with an array of flowers I could never get to grow. He loved working in the yard barefoot in his boxers soaking up the summer sun - much to the chagrin of the neighbors who he called "squares" to their faces. He'd work through the rain and get covered head to toe in mud. He said he preferred to work in the rain because the sun wasn't as intense. I always told him to take breaks, but he he'd retort with something to the effect of "thanks dad". By the time I was married in July of 2013, the gardens looked amazing with lots of different flowers, the edges trimmed nicer than I ever cared to do, etc. It was a hell of a gift.
At some point, he started referring to himself as "Mariano" in third person, which I quickly learned was a reference to a song by Robert Earl Keen about a lonely Mexican gardener far from home. Once, while Jeff and I sat on the porch smoking cigarettes and telling stories, he was signing the song, but couldn't remember all the words. I Googled the song on my phone and played it for him. As soon as he heard Keen's voice, he started sobbing. I'm sure Jeff thought he'd never hear that song again and it made him happy with joy (That should be a Google Ad: two chain smoking "long hairs" listening to heart wrenching cowboy songs on a smart phone while one cries with happiness).
- "Mollywood" Mixed Media 2013
Reviving the Art Career
Jeff said he was an artist but had long since stopped painting. He was doing a lot of writing and would share it with me occasionally. It was pretty Gonzo stuff - stories of prostitutes and derelicts searching for the the meaning of life - all scrawled out by hand in notebooks and random scraps of paper.
From the start of knowing Jeff, when I'd be painting in the back yard with Joe and Charles (Dim Media), Jeff would often stop over to snag a beer and give us his opinion. It usually irked Joe. Joe was one of the few bull shitters who could go toe-to-toe with Jeff. Joe would usually reply with some sort of critique from Jeff, "Lets see you paint one of these days".
Jeff didn't end up getting the drawing model gig and was relying heavily on the kindness of others. He would walk around town a lot and was friendly with a lot of people. I think seeing us painting in the back yard inspired him to start back up. Someone bought him some paints and brushes. Others would give him magazines to cut up. Someone would buy him glue.
He started showing up at my place with stacks of newspapers and tag board painted up and covered in a collage of clippings and things found on the street. He'd seal the whole thing with some plastic sheeting he'd refer to as "poly". It was some of the most raw work I had ever seen. He also made swaths of collaged postcards he would mail out (I have a small collection on my fridge - all postmarked in spite of him living next door). It was easy to look at the work and picture him in a pot haze working through the night gluing and painting away until the sun came up.
As winter hit, I built Jeff five large stretched canvases. He nearly cried when he saw them. Although he expressed concern that they were so big. He didn't have a lot of room to work in his apartment and he was so used to working small on newspaper. It was a challenge and he was up for it. I never saw him happier than when he was putting "shmural" on the blank canvases. He credited me with restarting his art career ... at age 69.
He painted through the winter. He'd invite me up to his place for critiques. We'd sit around smoking cigarettes, staring at the paintings, and play "art ball" as he called the critique process. The paintings were great and it was humbling that he valued my opinion on them. His solution to the big canvas was to paint with bigger brushes and wider strokes... strokes that flung paint everywhere. The entryway to his apartment that served as his studio soon looked like an artist lived there. That artist was Jeff. He was enjoying painting again for the first time in ages. No longer was he talking about how he used to paint, or used to be an artist - he was back in front of the canvas.
- Jeff and my dad Mark hanging out on my porch
Petrich at 70
During the Spring of 2013, he had a show at the 2nd Moon coffee shop on Franklin Ave. The show was titled "Petrich at 70" and opened just days after his 70th birthday. A neighborhood friend, Bruce, helped him frame his smaller pieces and get pricing sheets, etc in order. The reception was a day long string of people from Jeff's past greeting him with hugs and catching up after years. He'd point out to me "That was so and so... he owns 10 of my paintings"... "Her, we used to screw a lot. She looked better 30 years ago" Up until then, I only half believed half of the stuff Jeff said. This was one of the first times I thought maybe his stories were true, or at least some sort of historical fiction.
One of his former students Will Latte, set up a show for him in Jyväskylä, Finland for that following November. Jeff packed up a handful of his smaller pieces and hopped a plane with his son Bill. Jeff invited me and my soon to be wife Katie. I think he really wanted us to go. Unfortunately, we were saving up for our wedding in June and just couldn't figure out how to make it work, something I regret now.
When Jeff returned from Finland, he was excited with life. The show went well. He talked about how the Finns were so stoic and how he humorously terrified them with his huge abrasive personality. He expressed how glad he was to spend time with his son and go on a trip with him "one last time".
Prior to heading to Finland, he had been spending a lot of time at The Belmore/New Sky Lounge, which was the club established by the Nick and Eddie owners. They were fixing him up with food and drink fairly often in exchange for showing artwork there. Hanging out at Nick & Eddie's also meant running into his old classmate Scott Seekins a fair amount. Jeff and Scott decided to do a group show together at the Belmore around Thanksgiving. Like most things about Jeff, I didn't fully believe that he knew Scott as much as he said. However, as I sat at the table with Jeff the night of the opening and watched those two joke about growing up around the slaughter yards of South St. Paul ... well, it was just bizarre. The show went well, but shortly after the building owner shut down the Belmore and a lot of Jeff's artwork was never to be seen again. This was Jeff's last show.
Over the winter. Jeff kept painting. The aforementioned paint that splattered all over his studio started to extend into his living room where he had also started to collage his many photos on the wall. One night after the bar, he called me up to his place. I found him dumping house paint on the carpet. He told me to help him smear it around. As I spread the paint about with a putty knife, he walked around squirting dabs of colorful acrylic into the mix "Here, work that in". This was the last time we painted together.
- Katie and Jeff Spring planting 2014
Come Spring, Jeff was quick to get out in the yard and work the soil again. He seemed a little more ambitious with the landscaping work and starting tearing up a lot of the work that he did the previous year for our wedding gift. His demeanor changed a bit too. We'd regularly see him at the bar or drinking a beer even though he regularly proclaimed he'd been sober for years prior to then. "What are you my dad?" he'd say when questioned about it. There was some ex girlfriend from Palmers that would hang out outside of his house blasting sad love songs and rap music. Jeff himself had the cops called on him a few times because he also started blasting rap music loudly at all hours of the night. I remember joking "These old people are really ruining the neighborhood". He became a bit more distant. He was a bit more crude and rude to me and my friends. He'd invite my friends up to his place to check out his latest work. They'd come back telling me how crazy looking his apartment was getting.
- Jeff and me painting his floor
All this came to a head when he crashed a gathering of friends at my house Memorial Day weekend after we got back from the Memory Lanes Block party. 20 or so people were gathered in my back yard drinking around a bon fire. Jeff came over already drunk and wearing his token orange Slipknot jumpsuit. He drank a lot more, offended most of my guests, pointed a realistic looking gun at people, and said some real harsh stuff to me personally when I asked him to leave. The next day, he came by with his son. I told him off - told him I didn't want him around anymore until he got his shit together. His son had just arrived from out of town, and Jeff was trying to save face so he didn't get into it with me. However, he grabbed his crotch at me before walking away. This was the last time I saw Jeff.
A few weeks later, I received an email titled "Jeff" with the first line reading "Jeff is dying". My heart sank.
He had pancreatic cancer that spread to his brain. I don't know if Jeff knew he had cancer or not. I never got to ask him. I don't know if that caused his erratic behavior the last few months. I never got to make amends with him after telling him off - the last thing I ever said to him. I never got to thank him for being such an influence on my life. Shortly after the Memorial day incident, Jeff called his ex wife saying he was not feeling well and he remained at her house for a few weeks before he was moved to hospice. He died surrounded by nurses - the Somali women he always found so beautiful. His family said they washed him, cut his hair, cleaned the years of dirt and paint from under his nails. It was the best he looked in years. Jeff died in Minneapolis on July 16, 2014 at the age of 71
There was no service. His ashes were spread over the Mississippi.
- Jeff and me at Tracy's
Sayin' Good bye
Jeff used to say "My father's obituary was longer than a list of reasons to be a lesbian". Jeff's obituary in the Star Tribute wasn't that long, but sure was great read. The comments are filled with anecdotes and memories of Jeff. He touched a lot of lives over his 70 years.
I miss the guy. I don't get to have our morning conversations over a cigarette any more. I don't run into him at the coffee shop. I don't get to go up to his place and play "art ball". His Jeffisms like "Blendout" are a part of my vocabulary. He'd helped introduce me to a lot of people in the neighborhood. He helped me lower my base line sense of not taking life too serious. I miss him. Keep on Jeffin'.
His son is organizing a retrospective of his work at the Vine Arts center Saturday, July 18th. If you knew Jeff, I highly encourage you to come. You can find out more and see some of his work on the website his son Bill put together.