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Pete’s Year

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“2005 is my year of self-promotion. Business cards, flyers, websites. Whatever it takes” So sayeth Craig Pete, maker of the giant side-show images seen throughout Milwaukee for years. Luckystar, KM Art, Hi-Hat, Cempazuchi, Fuel and other venues have displayed his work, and most folks who drive through this town have seen his hand-painted billboards for La Perla on the exterior of buildings on the near south side. Now, in 2005, Craig Pete wants you to know his name. A Milwaukee native, he first exhibited at Fuel Cafe, a few blocks from his Riverwest flat. The year was 1992, and a friend of his suggested he approach Fuel’s owner, Scott Johnson, who proved to be friendly and open to the idea. He credits people like Scott for giving artists their first chance to show outside of an established gallery. “It makes all the difference,” he commented. The Fuel show was a huge success and led to Pete’s first sale. It wasn’t long before he was invited to exhibit elsewhere, but it was his La Perla boss, Nick Anton, who elevated him to the status of a Milwaukee icon. With permission to do whatever he wanted, the results were circus-like billboards that grabbed a lot of attention. 1999 found Pete waiting tables at Brady Street’s Cempazuchi. He’s still there, and on most any night you can drop in and find both him and his paintings on site. But breaking the Milwaukee barrier and showing his work nationally are two different things entirely. He took a clue from his favorite local painter, Fred Stonehouse, who, among other places, exhibits in the prestigious Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago. “I was living there at the time, hopped of the bus at Wells Street, and walked in to his place,” Pete says. Carl Hammer was around that day, so Pete showed him work. “It took all of five minutes, and Hammer said it looked interesting, but “too much” like Stonehouse’s stuff. It definitely took me down a notch,” he says. Pete generally works on canvas drop-cloths he buys at Home Depot. They’re large, and he fills them with vibrant colors, symbols, and creatures that could only come from a wild imagination. Folk art, Mexican wrestlers and Day of the Dead images figure heavily in his work. As for the vibrant colors, those spring from his years of painting signs that need to be highly visible from a distance. Having a baby can change things. When Pete’s daughter, Isabella, was born in 2002, his priorities took a turn. Currently working on ideas for a non-traditional book for children titled “Skinny & Flaco,” he’s fashioning a tale revolving around two characters…a calavera (skeleton) and a skinless creature. “Basically, I want all the characters to fit together in a neat little package,” he says, adding that he hopes this newest project will soon be complete with text and illustrations. Making a living as an artist is somewhat of a side-show in itself. In Milwaukee’s current economy and cultural climate, not only are people buying less art, they’re tipping less. It didn’t help that Pete lost his studio space when his building was purchased by a group of attorneys who took it upon themselves to double the rent. He’s not about to fold up his tent and disappear however. “Making art is the only thing I want to do. I’m in it for the long haul,” he says. “2005 is gonna be my year.” Writer Mike Brenner recently resigned as executive director of the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network, but will stay on as a board member. He’s going to devote more time to his popular Hotcakes Gallery on Pierce Street. Craig Pete will exhibit in Child’s Play in July at Luckystar Gallery in the Third Ward.
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