Riding high with Traeger di Pietro

"King of the Jungle," by Traeger di Pietro. — Photo courtesy of Traeger di Pietro

The view from the driver’s seat in his soft drink delivery truck is looking better than ever this summer as Traeger di Pietro gazes across the Island he has claimed through his many paintings. At 36, he is riding the wave of artistic cachet, showing the work he creates at night and on weekends at three of the Vineyard’s top galleries, The Granary and The Field Gallery, both in West Tisbury, and North Water Gallery in Edgartown. Through a combination of talent, tenacity, and the consistent application of social media, Mr. di Pietro is creating a buzz for himself that’s hard to ignore.

“It’s all about Traeger,” one seasoned artist grumbled last summer, sounding a bit peeved. “He’s everywhere. Oh well, I guess every artist should have his day.”

Mr. di Pietro’s day is now extending from one season to the next, thanks to the charisma of both his personality and his portfolio. At 36, he is boyish and irrepressible, talkative and thoughtful, grateful and passionate. He channels these qualities into the two bodies of work he creates when he’s not rolling across the roads of the Vineyard for his day job, delivering soft drinks. His colorful yet often muted impressionistic landscapes, seascapes, and studies of fishermen adorn the walls at both North Water Gallery and The Granary, while his imaginative and more whimsical mixed media works add to The Field Gallery’s more contemporary collection.

Refusing to be pigeonholed as an artist, Mr. di Pietro has figured out a way to satisfy all of his creative urges: he paints what he wants, and it is good enough that, in the past, competing Island galleries have shared him. But beginning last season, his work is represented by three galleries owned by the same art dealers, Chris and Sheila Morse. The decision to leave Dragonfly Fine Arts Gallery and PIKNIK Art & Apparel after several successful years was not an easy one.

“Holly Alaimo, the former owner of Dragonfly, discovered me,” Mr. di Pietro explained. “I owe so much to her. And Michael Hunter of PIKNIK is amazing. But I always wanted both bodies of my work to be shown by the same company, so moving to Chris’s three galleries made sense. And three roofs are better than two.”

The move has served the artist well. His opening receptions are major summer events, luring new buyers to the galleries and showcasing his ever-evolving talents. “Traeger brings a freshness, a vitality, an energy that’s really exciting,” commented Field Gallery director Jennifer Pillsworth. “There’s an exuberance to his work that fits the gallery. Traeger is part of the Island community. He’s a great unifier, bringing in people who might never otherwise come see art.”

Robin Nagle, director at North Water Gallery, also cited Mr. di Pietro’s passion and energy as key components to his artistic achievement: “Traeger brings a fresh Island perspective from being out on the roads during the day. He has a passion for the Island and the beauty he sees. He has such positive energy and is such a positive person.”

Painting enough works for two major shows each summer (The Granary shows just several of his pieces) keeps Mr. di Pietro very busy. He recently purchased his first house and is converting his basement and garage to studio space. He shares his Oak Bluffs home with girlfriend Alyssa Venincasa, a veterinary technician, her French mastiff Blanche, and two new kittens that remain, at the time of publication, in search of appropriate names. Mr. di Pietro’s very large mixed media painting of Ms. Venincasa’s late Dalmatian (with no slight to Blanche intended) adorns the living room wall, additional testament to their shared love of animals.

Mr. di Pietro’s latest series of mixed media works is, in fact, all about animals. A chimpanzee, a nattily clothed gorilla, and an elephant ambling through city traffic will, along with others, make their debut at The Field Gallery’s opening reception for his two-week show opening on August 11.

The mixed media paintings reflect Mr. di Pietro’s playful, yet thoughtful spirit. “Animals are funny, cute – we all love animals,” he said. “They’re a fun way to express my opinion. I’m not making art to create controversy. With my animal paintings, maybe a little bit of a pinch, but I’m not into politics.”‘

Mr. di Pietro’s impressionistic works will be up for preview this Wednesday, July 10, at North Water Gallery, with a reception on Thursday, July 11, from 5 to 7 pm, for both him and artist Kenneth Vincent. Reflecting his much-loved theme of water and fishermen, his newest collection depicts quiet moments in Vineyard life — solitary fishermen, the curve of the shoreline, a fishing boat at port. His brushstrokes are gestural, capturing the essence of these moments rather than the details, with soft edges and the play of natural light bringing a sense of the serene off-season to the viewer’s busy summer.

He paints these works plein air, from photographs or sketches, or from memory. “I’ve driven by them so much,” he recalled, “studying the dunes, the ocean, people, boats. I remember the scene — the light, shadow, everything.”

While he insisted that he doesn’t get “too crazy with messages” in his paintings, there is often a sense of forlornness in his impressionistic figures. “One of the most important aspects of my art is empathy,” he explained. “The fisherman in the boat is a human being who goes to the grocery store, kisses his wife or boyfriend. The painting is a piece of his story, a moment. It’s just a suggestion of the bigger picture.”

In contrast, his mixed media works are often more lighthearted visions of inexplicable and random thoughts that pop into his head. Working with found objects — stickers, bar codes, a letter from his mother, newspaper clippings, and playing cards — they merge with paint and charcoal to take on new life. Animals in incongruous settings, women in colorful dresses, a couple holding hands, slender ankles in bright red shoes, often punctuated by patterned papers or shapes adhered to board, lend an air of fantasy and mischief. Other works evoke a feeling of mystery, leaving the viewer to deduce an interpretation – or not.

As he continues to develop his craft, Mr. di Pietro’s vision grows from the single painting to its possible role in the greater world around him. “I’m making art because I love it,” he stated. “At first it was to establish some sort of name for myself, but now I’m committed to art with legs — using it for a meaningful cause.”

To that end, he has participated in community art events like the recent Whatever the Outcome, an interactive project he helped launch, and has donated works to fundraisers that will benefit everything from the Island’s Skatepark to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

Whether he’s capturing a quirky cloud formation in the Vineyard sky with his iPhone camera, or sharing his latest painting, Mr. di Pietro relies heavily on the power of social media to keep his friends and patrons in touch with his latest endeavors. No observation is too slight, no idea too grand, his seemingly endless stream of thoughts and creations find their way to Facebook, Twitter, and his website. Initiated by his close friend and former marketing director/personal assistant Adam O’Neill of Winthrop, Mr. di Pietro is committed to communications.

“Adam got it going,” he said. “He believed in me. I just try to keep it going now.”

Influenced by such Island artists as Allen Whiting, Kara Taylor, Dan VanLandingham, and Lily Morris, as well as the joy of his young nieces’ creations, Mr. di Pietro also finds that the Island community nurtures his passion to paint.

“There are amazing people here,” he reflected. “Everyone is connected. I’ve been here more than 10 years now. It’s a beautiful, comforting community. My friends say ‘Martha’s Vineyard is made for you.'”

Opening Reception for Traeger di Pietro and Kenneth Vincent, Thursday, July 11, 5-7 pm, North Water Gallery, Edgartown. Show runs through July 24. northwatergallery.com.