Delivered by Jeff’s son William in 2015 in Minneapolis:
Jeff Petrich’s life began on the shores of Lake Superior and was lived along the banks of the Mississippi River. He was born in Duluth in 1943, and grew up in South Saint Paul, when it was one of the world’s foremost meatpacking towns. His mother Edith was a Norwegian-American quilter, seamstress, and homemaker from whom Jeff inherited his eye for color and his creative drive. His father Frank was an industrious immigrant from Slovenia, a high school teacher, and a politician whose leftist beliefs propelled him to alderman and mayor of South Saint Paul in the Fifties. From him, Jeff inherited his skislope schnoz and his stewardship of the earth.
Young Jeff was a confident, popular smartass with an inborn hostility towards authority figures. He resented his old man’s Old World ways and, by reaction, wanted to be as American as possible. He listened to jazz and snuck cigarettes. He played baseball and basketball. He devoured magazines, reading them and ripping them apart for art. As for high school, Jeff once proudly summed up those years by saying only that that he was sexually active and had a car. So I’ll leave it at that.
Jeff always detested South Saint Paul, which was too parochial and too white to sate his cultural appetite. So, showing an early penchant for painting, he moved to Minneapolis and enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s art school, where he was classically trained in the early Sixties. But instead of pursuing a path in the fine arts after college, he landed a coveted sales job with 3M in New York, a big break for a kid from South Saint Paul.
Jeff thrived as a happening young man in Manhattan. He loved the parties, the culture, the action. And he was a great salesman, articulate and dapper, an enthused believer in the potential of pressure sensitive adhesive, which was relatively new. He was making good money selling car-fulls of tape across the tri-state area. His bosses loved him. He had a bright future with one of America’s most successful companies.
But like so many other young romantics, the events of the mid-Sixties awakened Jeff’s political consciousness and precipitated a profound loss of faith in American society. He had been deeply disaffected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He was horrified by the escalating war in Vietnam. And he was disgusted by the endemic racism he saw in all walks of American life.
Finally, Jeff became disillusioned with his job. He told me his supervisors instructed him to lie, to oversell, to squeeze out every penny he could by manipulating his clients, practices he later characterized simply as “fucking people over.” Jeff hated it. There was nothing he valued more in his life than the truth, and nothing he disliked more than artifice, hype, and bullshit. He came to abhor the business culture of 3M and of Manhattan generally, his soul sickened by the incessant pursuit of profit.
People define themselves by who and what they love, but genuine self-realization often comes from seeing who and what you loathe. In New York, Jeff learned who he was by experiencing how he didn’t want to live, in service to other people’s greed. He realized that his freedom and his conscience were more important to him than his comfort.
So in his mid-twenties, Jeff made one of the seminal decisions of his life. With no fallback, he quit his job at 3M. He blew off a promising career, bewildering his boss and his father. And then he dropped out. He eschewed the straight world, left New York, and began an unluxurious life as a painter on his own abstract terms.
To me, the next few decades of Jeff’s life are less clear. I know my dad was a man about Minneapolis, a fixture on the West Bank, which he called the Best Wank, especially at the infamous Viking and Triangle Bars. He scraped by as a part-time house painter, he made locally popular calendars, and he exhibited his art intermittently. And, thanks to his gynecomastia, he avoid the war. As he gleefully put it:
This saggy left tit kept me out of Vietnam!
Beyond that, I don’t know much about Jeff in the late Sixties and Seventies. But some of you in this room do. You are the last living links to Jeff’s early adult life, and I’d love to hear your stories. I ask that you please get in touch with me tonight and take my information. I would be eternally grateful if you took the time to write a letter or an email with any memories of my dad you’re willing to share.
Jeff met my mom Marie on the West Bank in 1978 and the couple lived together for the duration of the Eighties, what were relatively domestic, stable years for him. He worked as a painter, exhibited occasionally, and eventually had me in 1988. Marie will speak a bit more about those times.
I can pick up Jeff’s story in his mid-forties, when I came into the picture. When we were in Finland in Jeff’s last year, he told me that having a child at 45 had been totally unexpected. But he said having a son, and another son a few years later, were the greatest things that ever happened to him.
Fatherhood was one of the few things Jeff took seriously, but he was hardly a serious father. He couldn’t stand to be an authority figure enforcing the sorts of rules and punishments and rigid expectations that he’d hated as a kid. As a result, Jeff was a bad dad.
His words, not mine. I can hear him now:
Jesus Billy, what kind of father buys his kid lottery tickets? You must have a really bad dad.
This was a running joke throughout my childhood, what a bad dad I got stuck with, how unlucky I was not to have a regular father with a haircut and a job. Jeff liked to point out other fathers who looked like squares. He'd see some dopey, humorless dad scolding his kid and he’d say:
Look at this guy, Billy, doesn't he look like fun? Don't you wish he was your dad?
I never did. I never once wished I had a “normal” dad and I never bemoaned the fact that my parents weren’t together. I lived with my mom but I saw Jeff regularly. Spending time with him as a kid was always stimulating. In his own unorthodox way, he was a dedicated teacher just like his father. Everything we did was pedagogical and everywhere we went enlivened my world. He blessed me with an urban education no elementary school could bestow.
We followed train tracks and back alleys, we trespassed, hopped fences, and walked along the river, where Jeff showed me the homeless camps, the colonies of destitute drunks living in tents in the woods. I was seven. I didn’t know that there were people living by the river in the city where I had a comfortable home. But I needed to know.
Bad dad that he was, Jeff had no compunction about taking me to the West Bank, where I played pinball with bartenders, bikers, and blues musicians and played street hockey with the over-pierced punks from the Hard Times. While downing kiddie cocktails at the Viking, I listened to old drug dealers’ tales about prison and the police, and saw firsthand what alcoholism does to a man. While eating fries at the Wienery, I was told what it was like to emigrate from Eritrea. While climbing trees behind the 400, I watched women in hijabs filing their children between the crack stacks of Little Mogadishu. And while walking along Cedar and Franklin, I was made to grapple with the plight of modern American Indians. This was a practicum in humanity, and Jeff put it all in context with characteristic candor. He never talked down to me, never softened the truth. He wanted his son to see the world as it was.
But not just the human world. Jeff was a Minneapolitan to the bone, but on a spiritual plane, his allegiance was to the earth. He was never a religionist. He’d end conversations by saying:
I’ll see you in church…
make sure to sit by the window.
But he literally worshipped the natural world, especially the Mississippi with its long, languid flow. In his journal, he described it as “the lazy river, the muddy almighty, the higher power of Jeff Petrich.”
About humans, Jeff was ambivalent. But he loved animals and plants unconditionally. He had a way with cats and dogs, who would sit at his feet for hours, looking at him longingly like a god. He felt communion with the crows, and called his window his television because he was endlessly entertained by the birds and squirrels in the trees outside his apartment.
Like his dad, Jeff was a lifelong gardener who believed the best therapy was to get in the soil and get your hands dirty. Pulling weeds, planting seeds, growing alyssum between cracks in a hand-laid patio, and twisting branches into an attractive trellis--this was church for Jeff Petrich.
Over the course of my life, there was one mystical maxim that he always came back to. He told me a hundred times: Billy, you gotta believe in the miracle.
The miracle to Jeff was germination, the transformation of a small seed into a towering tree, the unstoppable force of growth and death that runs the world. Nothing was more sacred to Jeff Petrich than the miracle. And nothing was more important to convey to his son.
So we’d get out of the city and spend days exploring ravines and creeks, picking wild berries, watching birds, and making dams. We’d drive up north and immerse ourselves in the forest. We’d take back roads and find unguarded quarries, where we’d spend hours under the sun, hunting for agates. And we’d always return to the river, taking stock of the limitless life it supports.
When we weren’t exploring, we were in class in Jeff’s apartment. I learned English by playing Scrabble. I learned social studies by reading encyclopedias and cutting them up them up for collages. I learned about numbers and money by learning how to gamble and play cards, by seeing how point spreads and dice and gin rummy worked. I learned about danger by playing with fire. And I learned how to fall. Jeff would push me onto a bed over and over, telling me I had to know how to fall, how to catch myself, how to react in the moment when things go wrong.
He was an exceptional educator. I owe so much of what I know and who I am to the people, places, and ideas he exposed me to as a boy. I know if I ever have a child, I’m going to be a bad dad too.
Jeff’s second son, Butch Buchen, couldn’t make it tonight, which is unfortunately apropos. He didn’t grow up with Jeff like I did, didn’t see him as a kid. But that started to change in recent years when, through a series of visits, they got to forge a belated relationship. This meant the world to Jeff, who adored both of his sons, and wanted more than anything for them to meet. So in 2011, we made it happen. Jeff and Butch travelled to Ann Arbor, Michigan and the three of us spent a festive Father’s Day weekend together. Jeff was overjoyed. I’d never seen him so sentimental. His progeny united, he felt fulfilled as a father. And at the end of the trip, he proclaimed that he could die happy.
But I think he was wrong. In mid-2011, at the age of 68, Jeff Petrich still had something to prove. He still had work to do. He’d been making art for five decades, but had yet to fully tap his potential as a painter, and he knew it.
So he stopped working on houses, he hung up his ladder for good and freed up his life. He certainly had nothing to prove as a house painter. I’d joined him on a few of his jobs over the years and got to witness his prowess with a paint brush and his incomparable command of caulk. With effortless grace, he filled cracks and covered walls, not a brush stroke to be found. As I speak, there are hundreds of rooms and hallways across the Twin Cities that still sport a Jeff Petrich paint job, a testament to what a skilled tradesman he was, but not the legacy he wanted to leave. Though Jeff was one of the best house painters who ever cut a ceiling, he was first and foremost an artist.
Artist wasn’t his occupation, it was his identity. Making art wasn’t his livelihood, it was his lifestyle, and he sacrificed everything for it.
I’m not ashamed to say that Jeff Petrich was poor. He was a Sixties dropout who never jumped back in, who upheld his convictions and paid the price. He chose to spend his life pursuing the ethereal at the expense of the material. Which I think is righteous.
Jeff needed the money from his house painting gigs, but he said he was too old for that shit. He preferred poverty in exchange for the freedom to do what really mattered: garden, write, make postcards, and most of all, paint. So Jeff retired and returned to his life’s work: the visual union of paint and paper. It didn’t matter that he was penniless. Painting in earnest for the first time in years, he found himself becoming a happy man.
In 2012, when Jeff was 69, he received a fateful call from his friend and former student Will Lahti, a Finnish painter. Will offered to set him up with a one man art show in Jyvaskyla, a college town in central Finland. At that point, Jeff hadn’t exhibited in nearly two decades. But the prospect of his own show in his seventieth year inspired him and sparked a resurgence that no one saw coming. In his journal he wrote: “Finland changed my life, it made me put up or shut up.”
Never one to shut up, Jeff put up big. He started painting at a furious pace, cranking out canvases like a one man assembly line. He doubled his electric bill, staying up every night, working in his studio. Suddenly he had all the energy and enthusiasm of a man in his prime. Most guys slow down at seventy. Jeff exploded. He experienced his seventieth birthday as a liberation, writing that it was “a kick in the ass, like getting out of jail and starting a new life hustling artwork from my fingertips.”
2013 was Jeff’s renaissance. He shed all his self-doubt and fear in his seventieth year and achieved total confidence in his artistic process. He had paintings coming out of his ears. Paintings that surprised and excited him, paintings he didn’t realize he had in him. He said he felt resurrected, that he was doing the best work of his life.
I didn’t get to see him or his new stuff until he flew to Washington ahead of the Finland show. These are my soul he said, as he dropped a stack of plastic-coated paintings on my floor. I was blown away. Here was the most daring, visually acrobatic work I’d ever seen my dad produce. I thought it was so gorgeous. But I’ll let Jeff’s art speak for itself. As he said, writing about painting is like having an art show on the radio.
We flew to Finland in high spirits and stayed a few days in Helsinki with Will, exploring the city and telling West Bank stories. Jeff was invigorated by the crisp northern air. He struck up conversations with bemused strangers on the street and put some old Finns to shame in a public sauna. He was having a ball. That trip was about so much more than an art show for him. It was a pilgrimage. Reaching seventy and hitting his creative prime had already transformed his life. Finland was his celebration, the consummation of his comeback.
And in his eyes, the exhibition itself was an unqualified success. He showed his work, gave a speech to a packed house, and afterwards he stayed up all night getting loaded with Finnish artists and intellectuals. It was everything he had hoped for.
On our last night in the country, Jeff was reflective. We talked about his past and he poured his heart out, speaking about the mistakes he’d made and the people he’d wronged. With tears in his eyes, he told me what a struggle his life had been, how he’d never had more than a few hundred dollars to his name and how debasing that could be. He talked about how badly he’d abused his body over the years, and about how his manic depressive illness had slain his sanity, strained all of his relationships, and driven him to the brink of madness and death. But, after all the pain of a tempestuous life, he said he felt he had redeemed himself in his seventieth year, that he had emerged from the wreckage of his past as the man and the artist he always wanted to be. He had no regrets. It had all been worth it.
Jeff called Finland the trip of a lifetime and once again proclaimed that he could die a happy man. This time he was right.
After two whirlwind weeks, we made the long Transatlantic trip back to Washington. As a healthy 25 year old, I was completely exhausted and needed to sleep immediately. But, unfathomably, as a gaunt 70 year old who hadn’t slept more than a few hours a night for weeks, Jeff was eager to hit the town. So as I slept, he walked into a local bar as an old stranger, befriended people, drank for free all night, and walked out with phone numbers, addresses, and a complimentary joint.
That was Jeff’s style in his final year. He had an irresistible exuberance and charm. He was indomitable, his best self.
But I expected him to slow down when he got back to Minnesota. After a year of superhuman exertion, after the longest, wildest manic run he’d ever sustained, I was ready for the inevitable crash. But Jeff just kept accelerating.
He kept painting and partying, kept making new friends and hatching new schemes. No one in Minneapolis was having more fun. He was awed by his life whenever I talked to him on the phone. He kept telling me: "Billy, it gets better every day." He joked that his vow of poverty had finally paid off. And he was right. Before he died, Jeff achieved a transcendent state of mind that few of us ever enjoy. He was awash in the richness of life.
The first time I saw him after the Finland show was in May of 2014, just after his seventy first birthday. When I pulled up to his house, I found him in his yard, shirtless and wild-haired, listening to hip hop in the shade of a tree. By ritual, he rolled a few joints with his long, gnarled fingers and we played Scrabble for hours, our smoke keeping the mosquitos at bay.
Scrabble was Jeff’s game, a constant in our lives. This was a man--and a writer--who revered the English language, its power and its pliability, and especially its byproducts: wordplay and slang. He didn’t care about the score, only about making cool words, earning what he called style points. Jeff said about Scrabble and about his life in general that he never tried to win, he just wanted to score.
Before I left that afternoon, he asked me to play a quick game of catch, something we hadn’t done more than a few times over previous years. He said it was on his bucket list. So we walked with our gloves to a nearby lot where, as in so many days of my youth, he threw me towering pop flies.
I was struck by the old man’s arm strength. At 71, he could still hurl a baseball high into the sky and he could still snag my return throws and swipe the ground, tagging out invisible baserunners like a baseball fan who never grew up.
Scrabble and baseball, a few joints--it was an emblematic Petrich afternoon. And it was our last. Just two weeks later, Jeff walked two miles to Hennepin General and was diagnosed with damn near every cancer in the book.
When I flew back home, the father I found in the hospital was a shadow of the man I’d played catch with. Jeff had begun his rapid descent, and didn’t have much time. The hospital wanted to keep him and perform a needless biopsy, but I refused and busted him out, insisting he spend his final half-lucid hours in his own home.
As I drove my dying dad back to his house, I wondered if any part of him understood the gravity of the situation.
What do you want to do today dad? I asked, as if all was well.
He gave me the haughtiest look, shrugged, and said:
Let’s go smoke and croak.
And so we did.
As soon as he got home, Jeff turned on his boombox and started blaring his favorite rap music. He cracked a beer, blew a jay, and started dancing, shaking his ass and singing along to Kendrick Lamar and Rich Homie Quan. He had boundless energy that day and he wanted to party, to cram as much life as possible into his ultimate hours. I was not in a party mood; I was just trying to keep him indoors, to give him what he wanted, to humor him. But Jeff was never one to be humored. Annoyed by my appeasement and my dearth of mirth, he confronted me.
Why aren’t you celebrating?
The only acceptable response was to start celebrating. So I gave in. Jeff outfitted me with bracelets and necklaces like he was baptizing me into his tribe. For hours we danced and sang and drank and smoked, paint flying everywhere, Jeff wildly roaming his rooms, shouting and ripping apart paintings, throwing shit, binge eating, the music getting louder and louder. Those hours were primal madness, Jeff’s premorbid power an intoxicating force.
At one point he escaped, got outside, and I had to chase him down. There we were, wandering the streets of Minneapolis in broad daylight, father and son, both shirtless and shoeless, with paint streaked across our bodies. He was wearing only his boxers; I was in swim trunks. A car rolled by and some inspired wiseass shouted “Hey, where’s the beach?” Luckily we were in Seward, so no one else batted an eye.
At another point that day Jeff became enraged and cursed Hennepin County for withholding his assistance money. He said they owed him $500 and he demanded they give it to him. Now. I tried to change the subject, but he wouldn’t relent. He turned fierce, grabbing my shirt and howling for his money with all the urgency of a dying man. Now. Now!
It was clear that the only way I could calm him was to get some money in his hands, so we left the house and drove to the bank, where I withdrew $500 from my account. I handed the bills to Jeff and told him they were from the county. He fingered those five Franklins with evident satisfaction, counted them out, made sure they were all there. He knew this was the last money he was ever going to see. And he knew what he wanted to do with it. To my surprise, he handed four of the bills back to me and said:
Here Billy, this is for you.
For the first time in that trying day, I was moved to tears. Jeff had demanded his money so vehemently because he wanted to be able to leave me something. He wanted to give me what little inheritance he could.
He didn’t go to sleep until well after midnight. The next morning was his last in his own home, before Marie and I took him to our house and began administering hospice care. I figured he’d sleep in, given the exertions of the previous day, but as they say, you can sleep when you’re dead.
Jeff began to stir at five AM. I was lying on the floor in the next room and feared he would become restless or angry, that I would have to get up and wrangle him. But then I heard a click and, moments later, I smelled marijuana smoke. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think he still possessed the fine motor skills, but as far as I could tell, joint rolling was one of his last faculties to give out. There were plenty of rolling papers lying around, but he didn’t use any. Jeff Petrich rolled and smoked his final joint in style, with his last one hundred dollar bill.
He spent that final morning in his favorite place in the world: his garden. Crouched among his zinnias, digging into Minneapolis soil with his knowing hands for the last time, he was serene.
Jeff went out like a lamb, drifting away and dying quietly a month later. He’d had some combination of pancreatic, brain, and lung cancer for at least a year, but miraculously, he never felt any pain. People with his prognosis spend the last year of their lives in hospitals, attached to machines. Jeff spent his churning out paintings, exhibiting in Europe, and having the time of his life.
When Jeff died, he disappeared into thin art, into the products of his hands and his mind that are hung around us tonight. What you see on these walls is Jeff Petrich. These are his soul for us to share. I’m proud of my dad for the work he did. And I’m so grateful that I inherited thousands of paintings, postcards, and pieces of writing instead of thousands of dollars.
I miss and admire Jeff. He was an honest man. He was a thrilling father. He was a true artist. And by the way, he was the funniest motherfucker I ever met.
Time will tell if Jeff Petrich won. But he sure as hell scored.