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'Eye'-conic artist keeps gaze on St. Louis

In Visual Arts

10:55 am on Thu, 08.04.11

Do you recognize the name of stencil artist Peat Wollaeger? Maybe not. But it's very likely you've felt his eyes watching you from the sides of buildings, road signs and other unlikely St. Louis locations.

Photo by Nancy Fowler
Peat Wollaeger

Wollaeger has been making eyes at St. Louis since 2002. Even before isolating the eye as a specific focus, the poetically proclaimed window to the soul was the place he began every portrait.

The idea to feature eyes alone occurred to Wollaeger three years ago when considering how he might decorate his 1963 Ford pickup, now dubbed the "Eye-conoline." Subsequent eye pieces, including several of the concrete circles dotting Grand Avenue in preparation for a street project, now serve as an easy reference for describing his work.

"I'm kind of the 'eye guy,'" Wollaeger said. "When people ask, 'What kind of art do you do?' I say, 'Ever seen those eyes on Grand?' and they're like 'Oh, yeah, I know those.' Then I can kind of explain what I do from there — it's a starting point."

'that's Cool ... Wonder if I Can Do That?'

At Webster Groves High School (class of 1993), Wollaeger began to receive recognition for his artwork, but his career was already veering toward graphic design. While still a student and working part-time at a local agency, Wollaeger traded skills with his co-workers.

"I was showing these guys how to use Photoshop and Illustrator, and they were showing me traditional design methods," Wollaeger said.

Following graduation and a job as an in-house designer at Kinko's, Wollaeger jumped into the nascent field of guerrilla marketing with the Joe Camel cigarette campaign in Chicago and began to move up in the business.

But after he and his wife Kris Wollaeger had the first of their three boys, the couple boomeranged to St. Louis for affordable housing and a manageable cost of living. As a banner ad designer for STLToday.com, Wollaeger yearned to make his own art again.

Looking for ideas to create a unique portrait of their new baby for a Mother's Day present, he discovered an emerging British street artist named Banksy.

"I thought, 'Wow that's cool — he, like, cuts out stencils. I wonder if I can do that?'" Wollaeger said. "A lightbulb went off in my head and from that point on, it's kind of been my thing."

Yahoo! and Hillbilly Hijinks

Further illuminating and informing Wollaeger's early work was a website called StencilRevolution.com, a supportive online community. Simply uploading new pieces brought quick feedback.

A heavy pet

"They were like, 'Oh, that's awesome' or 'You could try this or that.' It was almost like art school for stencil artists," Wollaeger said.

The Mother's Day project was followed by Wollaeger's first portrait to net a sale: a dog stencil for Mad Art Gallery's Heavy Petting event supporting Stray Rescue.

"Then it was like, maybe I'm on to something," Wollaeger said.

Through StencilRevolution contacts, Wollaeger got more paying work, including a project for the band Green Day and another involving Mountain Dew. His spin on the soft drink's trademark hillbilly graced a million bottles, distributed all over the country.

Not only was his work creative, it was delivered with a superior work ethic, according to marketer Ron Alan, who collaborated with Wollaeger on the Mountain Dew gig.

"A lot of artists are sensitive and touchy about their work and very hard to work with, but he never got upset over anything," Alan said.

The bottle design spawned a video starring Wollaeger as an awakening Rip Van Winkle-style hillbilly who shows some young stencil artists a thing or two, and a kickoff party at Mad Art. The gallery event featured Wollaeger in his hillbilly get-up, playing in a jug band in a setting complete with "moonshine" punch, hay and live farm animals.

"We kept increasing the focus of the budget toward St. Louis because he was such a dynamic and energetic guy to work with," Alan said.

'larger Than Life'

When art therapist and mixed media artist Kris Wollaeger was dating her future husband, a typical evening involved the two of them working on creative projects or him playing guitar and singing while she did art.

Photo by Nancy Fowler | Beacon staff
Peat Wollaeger hams it up after adding a tiger to a public stencil wall on a boarded-up former movie theater a block from his Cherokee Business Association Incubator studio.

"I thought if Peat would ever take a jump with his arts career, it would have been in music as opposed to visual art," she said.

One thing that doesn't surprise her is the vigor with which Wollaeger pursues his work. Even before she officially met him, she was drawn to his dynamic presence.

"He's this larger-than-life person," she said. "He always had a project, and I thought it was so great that he had so many talents and interests."

And what about the concept that the qualities that initially attract you drive you crazy later on?

"Now, sometimes I'm like, 'Will you just sit down and watch a movie with me?'" she said.

Making Art Make Money

These days, Wollaeger is super-busy, even for him. Until recently, his art was an avocation and freelance pursuit. But since being laid off in December 2010 from a banner ad design job at KSDK, he's been trying his hand at a full-time art career.

Photo by Josh Rowen
The Eye-conoline

When he worked the 9-to-5, he concentrated on whatever stirred his soul every Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon in his Cherokee Street studio. Now, most of his studio time is consumed by commercial projects.

He bemoans the fact that there's little time for his dead, fat comedians series or the Mexican wrestling masks on which more than 100 artists around the world created designs serving as background for Wollaeger's stenciled facial details.

On the other hand, he's picked up some interesting and lucrative work such as turning the basement of a pricey Huntleigh home into a urban-style sports arena complete with stencil portraits of the family's children. While Wollaeger distances himself from the graffiti label and its vandalism connotations, the Huntleigh homeowner's interior designer found him by searching online for St. Louis graffiti artists.

As he figures out how to get noticed in a field where many don't survive, Wollaeger is becoming more savvy about the inner workings of the art world.

"Once you get into certain collectors' homes, all of a sudden your stuff is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars," Wollaeger said. "I really haven't tapped into that rich vein here in St. Louis yet, but it's there."

Contact Beacon staff writer Nancy Fowler.

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