On a rainy Saturday in May 2019, the first-ever Peoria Heights Fine Art Fair was underway along Prospect Road. It was quite a sight: a sea of umbrellas, people huddling under canopies, and sheets of plastic tarp protecting art from the downpour. With temperatures barely climbing to 50° Fahrenheit, most attendees were bundled up to ward off the chill of an unusually cold late-spring afternoon.
Walking past the artist booths, deftly avoiding puddles on this gray and gloomy day, a burst of color stood out: bold and vivid strokes of red, blue, purple and yellow. They were a visual exclamation point, impossible to ignore. Wildly colorful and familiar faces leaped from large canvases, including John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe and Peoria’s own Richard Pryor. For most who attended that day, it was likely the first time they had seen this artwork—or the artist who created it.
A full-time firefighter who’s been painting his entire life, Andrè Petty managed to fly beneath the radar of Peoria’s arts scene for years. But his status as a relatively unknown artist was about to change—and quickly.
Making of an Artist
He began drawing as a child, meticulously attempting to recreate scenes from comic books. “My oldest brother, who passed about 20 years ago, was a huge painter and drawer,” Petty explains. “He was a big influence on me, especially as a kid. I thought he was the coolest thing ever.”
Petty, who recently surpassed 20 years at the Peoria Fire Department, has an unusually demanding and dangerous job. He is scheduled to work for 24 hours straight, followed by 48 hours off the clock. Over the years, he filled his time off with extra odd jobs—but it also allowed him to spend hours painting, which he soon realized was essential to his health and happiness. “When I’ve gotten away from art, it seems like I’m forgetting something about myself,” he observes.
Over the past two decades, Petty received occasional requests for his artwork. “I probably had six commissions total,” he says. But last year, everything changed—and all it took was a modest shift in perspective. At the time, he had been laboring over a large painting of John Lennon for more than eight years. “I was stuck,” he remarks. “I didn’t know what to do next. Every now and then I would do something with it, but I literally barely touched it.”
And then early last year, he began to feel an urge to finish it. “My wife said, Why don’t you start over? And I thought, well, that’s an idea!” He painted over the original piece and started from scratch. “What had taken me eight years, I ended up finishing in three weeks. So, then I did another one… and then I did another one!”
This burst of artistic energy did not go unnoticed. A friend of the family, Theresa McDade, suggested that he submit his work to the Peoria Heights Fine Art Fair. “I had never applied to an art fair. I didn’t know the dynamics, how it worked,” he recalls, shrugging. “I had no idea it was judged. That’s the first one I got accepted to, and it’s really taken off from there. Like—I’m sitting here and I’m talking to you right now, and I don’t even believe it!”
To say that his artistic career took off suddenly is a bit of an understatement. For Petty, the past year has been nothing short of transformative. In a mere nine months, he received more than twice the number of commissions he had received in the prior two decades. He was also accepted into the nationally renowned Peoria Art Guild Fine Art Fair.
Petty’s work tends to highlight well-known figures in American culture. From The Notorious B.I.G. to Eminem, his unique style puts the pop in pop art. Along with his genuinely infectious smile, Petty’s friendly enthusiasm and generosity shine through in his paintings. “My wife has said that she thinks it’s the kid in me. I’ve always read comics. Whether it’s hip hop or jazz, I like colorful things,” he explains. “I like Andy Warhol. I’ve always been into graffiti… and Basquiat,” he notes, referring to the late poet, musician and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“What about Bob Ross?” his son Henry offers, helpfully.
Grinning, he responds: “Bob Ross! Of course. Who doesn’t like Bob Ross? Lots of little colors.”
Petty’s son appears to be as well-versed on his father’s artwork as anyone, and often interjects with his own thoughts. He regularly attends arts events with his father, and even served as the inspiration for Petty’s unique style of painting, if unintentionally. In first painting his young son, Petty employed what would become his signature style: bold, sweeping, multicolored interpretations of his subject matter. “It just came kind of easy, and I liked it. It was fun,” he notes. “And it just kind of went from there!”
The vast amount of time Petty spends on some of his pieces might be difficult to imagine—weeks on some paintings, months or years on others. He keeps unfinished artwork around his living space, which allows him to see the work in progress on a regular basis. For instance, a painting of singer-songwriter Erykah Badu currently hangs on his living room wall; he’s been working on her for more than half a year. “If you had walked in here about a month ago, she looked almost nothing like that,” he says, motioning toward the likeness.
Sometimes his path forward seems obvious, allowing him to work more quickly. “Richard Pryor’s hair was a one-time-through thing. It didn’t take me an hour to do it,” he recalls. But other subjects, for whatever reason, present more of a challenge. “Marilyn Monroe’s hair took me two weeks!”
Perhaps surprisingly, that piece stands out as his favorite. “Marilyn was the first one that I did where… I didn’t really know that much about her,” he explains. While he usually paints subjects with whom he feels a close connection, he decided to paint Marilyn more on a whim—and it paid off for him. “It’s a painting that I always saw in my head… and when I finally got it done, she really eclipsed everything.”
With that painting, he feels he finally began to appreciate his own ability to use the abstract to conjure emotion, movement and feelings. “What if you see something, and it’s a blur… but you can feel that!? Not everybody can just do that,” Petty notes. “And to be able to do it… I’m just so overwhelmed. I really, really like it.”
He also appreciates the public reaction to his work, and values the moments when people connect with something they see. Due to his upbeat nature, the outcome is almost invariably a grin. “A good friend of mine asked me to paint a couple images for him, which I did. He had recently lost both his mother and father within three weeks of each other,” he recalls. “When he came over to pick them up, he was saying that he hadn’t had a lot of joy in his life lately. And he said, Andrè, they have touched me—you cannot believe it. I feel uplifted.
“My wife was getting a tissue!” Petty laughs. “He was overcome by it, and I’m just like… that’s awesome. You can’t put a price on that.”
Intentions Take Flight
Last October, Petty painted a large mural of comedian Richard Pryor outside of Sous Chef in Peoria’s Warehouse District as part of the Big Picture Festival. Beckoning to passersby along SW Adams Street, it’s his most prominent work to date. As he looks to the future, Petty hopes to showcase his work in a local gallery. “I would love to expand,” he says. “I still feel like I’m totally brand-new to the art community in this area.”
He also has a list of celebrities he intends to paint soon, including Prince, Harry Caray, Muhammad Ali and Mahatma Gandhi. He was recently commissioned to create a painting of David Bowie—an eclectic figure who had been on his list for some time. But as that series comes to a close, he hopes to shift gears to a completely different subject matter.
“I want to get into doing something with everyday people,” he explains. “I would love to do architecture and buildings around town. But I still want to do it in the exact same way. I feel like I’ve touched on something that is not only touching me, but other people seem to be enjoying it a lot right now.”
As Petty approaches retirement from his day job, he looks forward to spending his days just creating. At the same time he exudes contentment, as much as the modesty and gratitude which seem to come natural to him. “The success has been just unbelievable,” he says, shaking his head. “If I didn’t sell another painting… I would still be far and away above what I ever imagined.”
Still, he adds with a smile and a gleam in his eye: “I can’t wait for the day when I’m painting full-time.” PM