Talk Story with artist Petrina Blakely

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Petrina Blakely shows off a couple of popular designs she creates on dresses and other clothing for kids and adults.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    These hand-painted plumerias are just one of Petrina Blakely’s many designs for adult and children’s clothing.

  • Photo contributed by Petrina Blakely

    Jan Sorenson Cox and Elizabeth Goo model two of Petrina Blakely’s designs.

Petrina Blakely likes to brighten up every white space she sees, but her favorite thing to paint is clothing. The 40-year North Shore resident hosts craft fairs and art shows, manages online communities of artists on the island and sells textile creations — wearable art — around the island and online.

She’s the mother of two sons, a grandmother of seven and shamelessly admits to using her family as models when she can catch up to them. Fitting, as it was Blakely’s own kids who inspired the artist to start painting bright images on baby clothes and kids dresses, T-shirts and women’s wear.

Blakely is gearing up for the holiday season, spending hours every day filling orders and finding strategic places to let the paint dry. But, she managed to make it into Kapaa for a chat with The Garden Island newspaper to share her story and her passion for painting on a sunny afternoon just before Thanksgiving.

How did you get into making wearable textiles and how long have you been doing this?

I started 30 years ago when my kids were little. I’ve always loved art and clothes and so I took an art class from KCC (Kauai Community College). Then a friend one day was hand-painting clothing and she was the one that introduced me to it. I have two boys, so it started with making clothes for them and made them as gifts initially.

I’ve sold my designs at a variety of stores over the years, I sold at the original Kauai Store, the one that closed down years ago. Of course I sell on Etsy and I have my stuff in a couple Oahu stores. Usually on Kauai you’ll find me at shows. I’m at the Hawaii Artisans Market that just opened up (Coconut Marketplace, Kapaa). Business just now is starting to pick up on Kauai 30 years after I started.

I have a pop-up at Lawai in Warehouse 3540 and we’ll have a pop-up in Kapaa at Paradise Beauty on Dec. 2 to celebrate with them.

Teachers really love them. Some of the kids would be wearing the colorful clothing around and they started requesting it. I make things custom, so (for example) one teacher asked me to make her a fish dress. So I’ve got that design now. All of the designs are custom, no two are alike.

What makes your designs interesting and what inspires your art?

Every design is unique, but my style is unique, too. I’ve been doing this awhile and sometimes people will tell me that there’s someone out there copying what I’m doing, but remember the phrase, ‘imitation is the most sincere form of flattery?’ Nobody can 100 percent copy someone else’s art because they’re not them. I do all the art, make all the designs. I don’t sew, that’s not my strong suit. But, I love color and making bright things.

I use acrylic paint but with watercolor techniques. I like to work with the white, the fabric to create the background. I have custom stamps for some of my designs, too. I’d say I paint anywhere from two to six hours on a given day and then I’m also trying to find places for everything to dry.

The turtle design, he’s modeled after the turtle I have at home. He belonged to my sons, but they’re out of the house now and the turtle stayed. His name is Christmas and he’s probably 25 years old.

My Puff the Magic Dragon shirt, the design for that came from the fact I can see Puff the Magic Dragon from my house — it’s in the mountain, if you look you can see the dragon’s head stretched out (into Hanalei Bay) and you can see his eye (a patch of red dirt a little bit inland from the “snout”). I have one design I call the Quiet Chicken. It’s probably the most silent bird of all birds (because it’s a painting). My mermaid is the most popular design, and I add designs when it’s requested.

One woman from the mainland wanted a ladybug dress. I’d never done that before, but I just looked up a tutorial and got it done. I have some stamps coming that are kind of Tree of Life designs and a peacock.

Recently I’ve started expanding out into home decorating, too. Painting throw pillows and table runners. Throw pillows are easy and it’s a natural fit, you want a bit of color with pillows like that.

What’s the difference between selling your wares online and at a craft show?

Here on Kauai, it’s not always easy financially and we all do what we have to do to get by. I like supporting and connecting with other artisans. Compared to selling online, I love meeting people in person and seeing people smile.

I’ve been able to meet some of my customers from Etsy, though. People send me photos all the time. One woman gets something for her whole family (when she shops) and I’ve also had people that know the designs come out to Kauai. It’s fun to meet them and have the whole family pick out new things together.

Really, I’ve seen a huge help from social media, especially Instagram. That’s my favorite platform, but Facebook helps out, too. That’s something that I would tell any of the artists or people out there that are wanting to sell crafts and artisan things — I’ve been doing this for 30 years and business is just starting to pick up. It’s exciting. I do it because I love it. Creating wearable art puts me in a happy place.

I sell to people on the mainland, but a lot of my customers are from here. Most of the people I sell to here find me either in the shops or at one of the shows. I don’t really sell to a lot of Kauai people online, but some. I do keep Kauai in mind when I’m creating. The clothing is good quality, and it’s light for living out here and I try to keep my prices reasonable because I understand the cost of living situation here on Kauai.

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Jessica Else, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or jelse@thegardenisland.com.

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