The sparks will be flying this month in sculpture artist Bev Petow’s East Sooke metalworking studio, as she puts the finishing touches on a set of four life-size steel dresses. The intriguing garden sculptures will have their public debut at the season opening of the Abkhazi Gardens on April 9.
All this came about when a box of Princess Peggy Abkhazi’s haute couture cocktail dresses was found in the house when it was finally taken over by the The Land Conservancy.
Now these visual metaphors for Peggy’s life and spirit will be on show throughout the spring and summer.
How did Petow, the woman of steel, come to take an unforgiving material like metal and develop an expertise in creating steel dresses?
She was introduced to tools and machines in her father’s mechanic shop and was given her love of design and sewing at age 12 by her mother.
After many years of working in graphic design, Petow went back to art school in mid-life — graduating with honours from Marylhurst University in Portland in 1998 when she picked up the welding torch at the age of 37.
“Steel is my main medium of expression although I have worked with many materials in both 2D, 3D and on computer.
“My process is a balance of construction and deconstruction as I focus on the forces of integration and decay that are constantly co-creating the world,” states Petow on her website (bevpetowdesign.com).
The steel dresses? A dear friend of hers from childhood, with whom she had always sewn cloth dresses, passed away from a lingering leukaemia illness. Petow, who had nursed her to the end, fell into depression..
Devastated by this loss, lethargy set in. Then one morning she heard her friend’s voice declare firmly to her, “Get back out into the studio.”
This snapped her out of her mood and she thought, “Okay, I’m a metalwork artist – what should my next project be?”
She began designing and fabricating dresses to be used as garden sculptures, based on the 60s and 70s designs that she and her friend used to make.
Their combination of industrial masculinity and delicate femininity were an instant success and have made their way into art galleries and gardens across North America.
“I hand-cut the material using a plasma cutter or a grinder with cutting blade,” she explained. Then she bends, cold hammers and welds pieces into flowing shapes that evoke the human form. As you can imagine, it is very heavy labour. She keeps fit with jazzercise three times a week and has a good chiropractor.
The results are intriguing costumes that are mysteriously lacking any bodies inside — even though they may weigh up to 40 pounds.
Rust? A coating of linseed oil helps even out the eventual beauty of weathering.
Petow gives credit to Celia Duthie of the Duthie Gallery on Saltspring Island as curating, sponsoring and being the backbone of idea and intention for the show.
Petow’s work will also be seen at the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra’s Secret Garden Tour on June 5 and the Stinking Fish Studio Tour running from July 21 to 25.
The summer tour brochures for the studio tour will be available for download in June. The summer tour map will be up by the end of May and will show the locations of the artists’ studios and the artists participating (stinkingfishstudiotour.com).
Petow is showing her work at the Bellevue Art Museum biennial show is September as well.