Artist Traeger di Pietro has created a memorable Messenger Man collaboration in time for the Island Autism Group’s new Artism for Autism art show fundraiser Memorial Day weekend at the Ag Hall. Di Pietro worked with Island students with autism to create art with a message — the most important things in life are free. Using a lot of color, stars, rainbows, and hearts, the students and the artist have created the perfect backdrop for the Messenger Man, di Pietro’s faceless man in the black suit that pops up in his artwork and around the Island; he’s on the logo for the Oak Bluffs eatery, the Cardboard Box.
“The point of the Messenger Man is all positive; he’s here to spread beautiful light,” di Pietro says. “In general, he pushes love. He changes time and he brings color.”
The artist talks about the Messenger Man almost as if he is a person, or at least love personified: “He interacts with hearts and stars and rainbows, and he shares all that stuff and tries to put out simple, everyday messages. He goes back to everything we learned in kindergarten … say please and thank you, and treat others like you want to be treated. There’s no gender, no color, and religion doesn’t matter. It’s about who you are as a person.”
The pieces he and the students created are colorful and fanciful, with the Messenger Man stepping in to help spread his message of love and kindness in each work of art. The color blue is sometimes associated with autism, and it appears in the artwork. The Messenger Man sprinkles blue magic dust onto a big yellow sun a student has drawn, or he blows the blue dust onto a heart in a piece titled “Connor the Conductor” he created with a student with autism.
The Artism for Autism fundraiser for IAG came about serendipitously. Jhenn Pillsworth, director of the Field Gallery in West Tisbury, is a board member for IAG as well as Friends of Family Planning (FFP), and when FFP raised enough money with proceeds from its annual art show at the Ag Hall to purchase a permanent Island home for their clinic, they decided to pass the event on to the IAG. Pillsworth explained that FFP, after putting the art show together for 28 years, is passing the torch.
“The funds we raised helped provide a permanent home for a clinic,” Pillsworth said of the FFP’s art show. “Now the Island Autism Group is in the beginning stages of trying to do the same thing, create a permanent home. So it seemed like a cool transition, and if it happened for us [the IAG], we’d pass it on to another nonprofit so that they could do the same thing.”
The IAG was founded more than 10 years ago by two moms, Marcy Bettencourt and Kate DeVane, who were looking for resources for their then kindergarten-age sons. Their sons are now teenagers, and the IAG is working to provide permanent support for both young children and adults with autism. They’ve developed an afterschool program for students ages 5 to 17 that gives them access to the YMCA, the Barn Bowl & Bistro, Misty Meadows, the FARM Institute, SailMV, and Rick Bausman’s drumming group. The IAG is now raising funds to develop a home base that could provide job training, work, social opportunities, and other activities for people with autism and other disabilities.
“We’d love to develop a micro-farm project so that we can work with on-Island partners, because there’s such a strong agricultural community here,” DeVane told The Times. “We need a location to make this happen, and the first annual Artism for Autism will help us raise funds to do that.” A micro farm with a garden, some chickens and goats, as well as a place to create art and some form of affordable housing for persons with disabilities, is the IAGs long-term goal.
Other Island artists and artisans have donated works for the show, and more of their art will be for sale at the fundraiser. There will also be other pieces for sale created by students with autism.
Pillsworth said that art is an important piece of the IAG, and she was thrilled, she said, to see di Pietro working with students. “That’s so awesome, and that’s more of what I’d like to see happening … kids getting involved and the community getting involved,” she said.
Students enjoyed creating the art projects, di Pietro said, and he’s enjoyed collaborating with them on Artism for Autism. He’s gone to the high school to work with students, and said he hopes to keep going. “I’m not a teacher,” the artist said. “I want to experience creating with them, and I plan to do more moving forward.”
Young artists are free to create whatever they want, without worrying about what sells or what other people think of their work. Di Pietro said people often ask him who his favorite artist is and his response is, “My 10-year-old niece, or my friend’s daughter, Lily.”
“To paint with a child is an honor because they are letting me into their creativity,” Di Pietro said. “It’s 100 percent freedom, and that plays along with the concept I’m trying to create in my own art … dreams, rainbows, love … these things are free.”
Di Pietro has created five separate pieces for Artism for Autism, and will have the originals and prints for sale at the art show.
Two fun projects, #themessengerman and #onthewarehousefloor, are di Pietro’s creations that spark the imagination and go beyond pieces of art. “On the warehouse floor” began when the artist worked for Pepsi-Cola and instead of loading trucks, he’d snap photos of a crack in the wall or a wet spot on the ceiling and turn it into a rendering of a couple in an embrace or an eagle swooping down to grab a fish out of the ocean. He sees things with a childlike vision and turns it into something beautiful, a work of art.
“My work isn’t serious, it’s playful,” di Pietro says. “I try to do things that are joyful and make them last forever.”
Artism for Autism, opening reception Friday, May 24, 5 to 7 pm, with refreshments and live music by the PickPocket Bluegrass Band; $50 per person with all proceeds benefiting the Island Autism Group. The show continues Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm, with free admission and parking at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. Visit traegerdipietro.com or follow #themessengerman or #onthewarehousefloor to see more of Ddi Pietro’s artwork. Visit islandautism.org to learn more about the Island Autism Group. The North Water Gallery in Edgartown hosts a reception featuring di Pietro’s work on August 8, and Field Gallery hosts a reception for di Pietro on August 10.