Creativity with Teeth

Imagine a place where artists from all around the country come together to share their exceptional talents. A place where people come to experience a plethora of unique talent. A place where fair food is king, abnormality is embraced, and pines trees are sentinels to a celebration of creativity. This place is the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, an annual festival in Northport, Alabama held for its 45th year on October 15.

janet-petrell-kentuckThough Kentuck has been going for a long time, Janet Petrell was a first-timer this year. While many people have memories of sticking their hands together with glue as children, Petrell spent her time expanding her imagination with an infatuation of zippers. The Tennessee native was, and still is, attracted to zippers as a way of creating beautiful art. She has always been a creative person who rarely followed the mold of modern art. When people think of art, they usually don’t think about zippers from old jeans on an ancient frame as art.

When asked about her unique style, she explained, “Well, this is actually no category; I’m my own category with zippers. Basically, I take the teeth of the zipper and I use that like paint. It’s totally called outside art, that’s usually the category for it.”

Some people may think that it’s easy to take a zipper and put it on a canvas and call it art, but Petrell disagrees.

“The process is I gotta take the part around the zipper (called the tape) off so I can use the zipper teeth. And then each strand of the zipper I take with the glue and I have to glue each strand of the zipper down. So then I have to wait for the glue to dry, so it’s not a quick process,” she said.

When I asked her if she prefers one style or color over another, she stated, “Absolutely not, I feel that because they are found zippers I would have to work with what is given to me. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle; I have to look at what I have on hand for zippers and then I think about what I can create from there.”

Since the age of 14, Petrell has used zippers as a tool to create her-one-of-a-kind artwork. One example being a commissioned piece at the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

“It took me 3,000 zippers and 500 hours. I do all these freehand; I don’t pre-draw anything . . . All of my zippers are found so it means I didn’t purchase them and they come to me and I always get asked where I get my zippers from. Jean quilters, people who do alteration work; I also work with the developmental home. They shred clothes for rags and they save me the zippers and I get a box every month from them. In turn, for their help to me, I create my zipper art for their walls and their homes.”

In addition to making art, Petrell said that she also loves to “garden, travel, play sports; I try to have a rich life. You have to have experiences in life to fuel your creativity . . . A lot of my pieces come from my travels, like that balloon over there I saw on a trip to Holland . . . I get to see places and it gives me my inspiration for my art.”

Even though she is a talented artist with a wonderful spirit, Janet Petrell has experienced some obstacles. About her job in clinical research she said, “I started that 25 years ago. I was diagnosed with cancer and I entered a clinical research study and it saved my life. And then from then on, I’ve worked in cancer to help find a cure.”

Of course, this could be a depressing occupation, but she uses her art to cheer herself up. “My art is really whimsical because I have to deal with working in cancer and it’s not always positive outcomes like I’ve had,” she told me. “This helps me feel better about some days and helps me find a meditative mind. Zippers really help me with that, it kind of puts me into a good zen.”

Such a unique medium may create a lack of support for some, but she told me, “My whole family, we’re all creative people. We all support each other with our creativity and all of my family and friends give me zippers. It’s very much a community effort.”

Even though she has accomplished a lot, she continues to do her zipper art and refuses to give up. She said, “ I always challenge myself to doing something new, something haven’t done before . . . I never get tired or think I’ve reached the peek; I always think there is something better or different I can do.”

Art, like everything else, has certain stereotypical requirements that can place artists in a box, prohibiting them from being their true creative selves. Some choose to conform, while others choose to ignore. Sometimes it takes some people to realize their talent than it does for others. Janet Petrell, however, knew as a child that she was no ordinary artist and that zippers would be an important part of life. Her zippers have helped her through her ups and downs, and I’m sure it’s the same for the recipients of her art. Zippers give people a familiar sense of excitement, one that Mrs. Petrell aims to recreate with every zipper placed on a canvas.


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