Rosy Petri: The Dream Weaver

Rosy Petri, the Pfister Hotel’s latest artist in residence, creates colorful textiles that tell a story about our shared history.

People can’t keep their hands off Rosy Petri’s sewn pop art portraits. “People come in and they just start touching the things I’m working on,” she half-laughs, half-complains. “This is art, and it’s a process and it’s a cultural story. You can’t put your hands on everything.”

A lot of her artwork explores the historical atrocity of touching peoples’ stuff: i.e. colonialism.

As backdrops for her portraits, she uses patterns often drawn from Indonesian and African influences. The subjects she layers on top of those patterns are always based on photos of real people – from personal friends to black female baseball players to musical influences like Aretha Franklin and Professor Longhair. They jump off the wall thanks to the color contrasts painstakingly selected from Petri’s collection of cloths.

Through tutorships under established mentors, like Milwaukee’s Della Wells, Petri learned that a lot of supposedly recognizable African prints are actually “copies of copies of traditional things.”

This bastardization of customary methods and styles is something she still wrestles with. Is it OK to work with a method developed by colonizers and slavers? She despises that history of oppression and refuses to forget her ancestry.

“This is not new. The way I’m doing it is,” Petri says of her methods, which start with sketches on her iPad before her hands touch the sewing machine.

“I have this room full of ongoing history … I wanted to talk about colonialism and decolonization and the history of oppression of marginalized people,” she says. “People can come in and go: ‘What is that? Why are you doing that? What is this? What does this mean?’

“This is that opportunity I’ve been waiting for – to talk about this stuff.”

Petri’s studio, open Monday through Thursday afternoons, sits behind a glass wall in a hallway off of the Pfister Hotel’s lobby. Her tenure as the hotel’s 11th artist-in-residence will end in March.

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This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan