Stand in front of one of artist Rocco Vitelle’s pieces, and you’ll never run out of things to look at.
“There are so many little details going on in the background that you can’t just absorb it all in 10 seconds,” Vitelle said. “One of my favorite things is seeing someone stare at one of my pieces for five straight minutes, getting lost in all the details.”
Think Salvador Dali. Tim Burton. Dr. Seuss. Walt Disney. Now mash all those styles together, and that’s where Vitelle’s work starts to come to life.
“It’s a bit hard for me to describe my artwork,” he said. “I would say it’s a little bit Disney on acid, style-wise. Artists like Tim Burton, Salvador Dali, Van Gogh, Dr. Seuss, Greg Simpkins … It’s all in there.”
Art is Vitelle’s creative outlet. He’s lived on the Island for the better part of 20 years. He grew up in Woodbridge, N.J., and decided to move here full-time after a vacation in 1999. Caretaking pays the bills, but art is why he gets up in the morning. Vitelle started drawing when he was 5 or 6 years old.
“I was fascinated with the possibilities of creating my own little universe after seeing movies like Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ For those who know my work, those are recurring themes of mine.
“I was always doodling little characters on notepads, napkins, or whatever I could get my hands on. Then as I got older, the doodling evolved into collages of characters in my school notebooks. I was constantly getting sent to the principal’s office for not paying attention in class.”
Vitelle’s works are masterful collages. They feature dozens of characters on one canvas. They tell endless stories, and feature plotlines and themes that are winks into Vitelle’s subconscious.
He’s never had any formal art training, which allowed him to develop his own style, and it’s why Vitelle believes he never actually graduated into painting. All the pieces are worked out in pencil, then hard-lined in pen and ink, and colored with markers and occasionally colored pencil for highlights.
“My process usually starts with the sketch pad,” Vitelle said. “I try not to do anything in particular. Just see what comes out.”
From time to time, Vitelle brings himself on creative retreats. This is where he’s able to tap into this endless vault of creation. He usually goes to Vermont or Lake George, and brings a sketchpad and some pencils.
“Hopefully I come up with 20 or so characters to use in my finished pieces,” he said. “I’m actually on one right now.”
From there, he assorts a few of his favorite sketches, along with some favorite characters.
“I step back and say, OK, what’s the story here? I find a way to connect the dots and make a story. Somewhere in that process I learn a bit about what’s going on in my subconscious.”
Rupert the Ragdoll is a recurring character he hides inside every single one of his pieces. Kinda like a ‘Where’s Waldo’ thing,” Vitelle said. “He represents a part of me. If you think of life in terms of mind, body, and spirit, he would be the body aspect.”
Vitelle wants to give people a sense that they’re looking at a snippet of a dream, or in some cases a nightmare. His pieces have dark qualities, dark but intriguing, and hard to look away from — hard not to want to interpret.
“Basically throwing a bunch of random ingredients onto a table and saying, ‘Make something really good with these.’ It keeps it spontaneous, unpredictable, and exciting for me. I think that translates to the viewer.”
His finished pieces take him anywhere between 40 and 60 hours. “Being that I’m a caretaker and that takes up most of my time, I usually only get four or five pieces completed in a year,” he said.
So where can you find Vitelle’s work? “You won’t find me in any galleries on the Vineyard,” Vitelle said. “I’m not exactly beach landscape or lighthouse art.”
Vitelle sets up at the Chilmark Flea Markets throughout the summer, and a few artisan shows like the Vineyard Holiday Show and Tivoli Day.
“I have to give credit to Ben DeForest, who spotted my artwork back in 2000 or 2001 hanging in Mocha Mott’s,” Vitelle said. “He’s really helped me get my artwork seen on the Island by hanging pieces up in his restaurants. Starting with Balance back in the day, up to the most recent Red Cat Kitchen and Cardboard Box. Ben has been my biggest patron.”
Vitelle’s pieces are also puzzles. “My artwork really lends itself to a puzzle pretty well, with all the detail,” he said. “It makes for an interesting process to put together.”
Vitelle’s work offers something different to the Island art scene — something whimsical, unexplainable, hypnotizing, and refreshingly far-out. Not a lighthouse and not a beach landscape, but perhaps something a bit more representative of us Islanders.
For more information on Rocco Vitelle and his work, visit the Rocco Vitelle’s ART Facebook page.