The Message from the Messenger Man

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2021 /

Writer: Chris White

Traeger DiPietro channels the beauty found around him into a beguiling statement about life on the Vineyard.

Back in the 1980’s, when WMVY lived at 92.7 on your FM dial, the Tisbury-based radio station played a weekly show called “A Saturday Night Oldies Party.” Pete Fly-By-Night Sawyer hosted the program, and one of the songs in his rotation was a hit by the 1960’s dream-rocker, Donovan, called “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” The lyrics begin with a speaker who awakens from a deep sleep to discover that he’s beside the sea, “gazing with tranquility.” At this point, “the Hurdy Gurdy Man came singing songs of love.” In an interview with American Songwriter in 1988, Donovan admitted that he was unsure whether he’d written the song while on the beach in Jamaica or during his visit to India with the Beatles; either way the character moves through the song accompanied by guitar riffs from the legendary Jimmy Page. The Hurdy Gurdy Man was a bard who traveled the world, Donovan explained, and “spoke the timeless truth.” The shimmering song blended acoustic folk music with electric psychedelia and claimed a piece of the folk-rock pie that was just baking to perfection in 1968.

 It captured the sound and spirit of tumultuous times in a way that was nonsensical, whimsical, but above all else, optimistic. One could imagine the Hurdy Gurdy Man as a prophet of sorts, one spreading love and, in doing so, healing the world. It seems appropriate that the Martha’s Vineyard radio station would have revived this song in the late 80’s, as it ties in with some of the more bohemian sensibilities that have helped to define the island over the years. It is likewise fitting that Oak Bluffs-based painter Traeger di Pietro has created a new version of this archetypal character. Rather than singing songs of love, however, di Pietro’s character spreads love through his actions: he dances through playing cards, pours rainbows down upon the Earth, waters flowers and lawns with tiny hearts, and catches stars in a butterfly net — not to keep for himself, but to share with the world. Always dressed in his signature black tuxedo with pantlegs too short and white socks, he’s known far and wide as “The Messenger Man.” 

Traeger di Pietro’s Messenger Man is an almost “Banksyan” recurring figure in one of the two primary veins of the artist’s work, his “mixed media contemporary” pieces. Similar to the stencils of Banksy, which appear on the sides of buildings, out in the public eye, the Messenger Man appears in all manner of settings, perhaps lounging on a star or atop a collection of clock faces. “He shares love and brings happiness to people,” says di Pietro. “I’m taking a cliche and driving it overboard. If someone sees the work and says, ‘That’s so cheesy,’ my response is, ‘Thank you.’” For his mixed media contemporary pieces, di Pietro often works with canvas, but sometimes with masonite board, and he’s careful to make sure that the paintings are archival — heavily glued and layered so they’ll last. Generally, he prefers canvas because it’s lighter than masonite; most of his pieces are fairly large, typically ranging from 36” x 36” to 48” x 60”. Rather than go larger with his work, di Pietro explains, “I’d rather have ten separate paintings.” 

In many of the Messenger Man paintings, the character appears in the foreground, painted upon layers of newspaper; in one piece, he’s flying on a rocket across a background of partially obscured Peanuts cartoons. In another, he’s pouring buckets of rainbows over a page of classifieds and 1950’s advertisements for Zenith radios and Bell Telephone. “I want these paintings to be playful, simple. It’s what I see, but mixed with silly ideas.” At the same time, the inspiration is often deadly serious. Arising from his participation in Black Lives Matter meetings and protests during the summer of 2020, di Pietro wanted to create a shape that would symbolize equality, and he created a “start”, the combination of a star and a heart, as another way for the Messenger Man to share love and happiness. He describes his starts as “stars which connect to our hearts love, reshaping the way we see, think, and feel so that everything we do reflects love and equality for all.”

The artist’s journey of Traeger di Pietro most appropriately arises from an early love. He grew up in Swampscott, MA, where he spent a good deal of his childhood playing baseball. “It’s a sports town,” he says, but when he was 15, his life took on a new dimension. “I was trying to impress my girlfriend, who was artsy. I’d go to baseball practice then come home and paint at night.” For the next few years, and all the way through college, he led the double life of a baseball player — first for UNH, then for the University of Maine — and an artist. He was the only baseball player he’s known who majored in studio art. “It was kind of nice to get the best of both worlds,” he says. “I had way more friends because of my two groups.” Although he no longer plays baseball, he did begin a series a couple of years ago that combines the sport with his painting. Like the Messenger Man paintings, di Pietro’s baseball collection is part of his mixed media contemporary body of work. “Picasso Ump” is painted over images of Picasso from magazines, and “Who’s On First?” is a tribute to both Banksy and to the famous Abbott and Costello routine. 

On the invitation of a friend, who said, “Man, you gotta come down and paint the sunset,” Traeger di Pietro visited Martha’s Vineyard and quickly fell in love again — this time with the location. He found a job delivering soda all over the island, first driving for a Coca-Cola distributor, then for a company that moved Pepsi products. As the “Soda Man,” he worked a steady 40 hours per week, and because he was always on the move, he could achieve multiple goals throughout each day. “It was the perfect schedule,” he recalls. “I’d drive the truck for work each day, then come home and paint every night. I got to work and see the beauty of the island, the boats, the ocean, the clam diggers. I’d bring a camera and capture everything I wanted to paint.” In addition, di Pietro took notes about the way people treat each other, the way folks look at and interact with those who make deliveries to stores and restaurants — social hierarchies. “I use that subject in my painting, too,” he says. On his daily rounds, he would also knock grocery shopping and errands out of the way, freeing up more time. “Everything I was getting paid for was to feed my art,” he says. Even now, after he has given up his day job and is painting full time, di Pietro still follows some of his old routines, driving around the island, gathering inspiration. He lives in Oak Bluffs, eight miles from everything, with his beloved pets — two cats and a dog. “They sometimes pop up in my paintings, too,” he says. 

Most of the island-inspired art that di Pietro paints is quite different from his mixed media contemporary work. He classifies his other main style of painting as “classical everyday impressionism.” Some of his subjects in this collection include: clamdiggers, both at work from their boats and in waders; fishing boats; families and elderly couples walking along beaches or through green fields; folks mingling on city streets; a girl with a flower or with an umbrella. “This style is more painterly than my mixed media work, with an emphasis on brush strokes,” says di Pietro. Rather than trying to capture and recreate an image in a photo realistic way, he focuses on the emotions in a piece. “Sometimes I get emotional myself when I’m painting something that I care about,” he says. He paints from sketches and photographs, but one of his goals is to create layers and textures in his paintings. “Brush strokes show that you care about your subject,” he explains. Among the islandscapes of di Pietro, a recurring theme is that of people working on the water, especially in their foul weather gear. The oranges and yellows of Grundens overalls glow in their contrast to the more subdued colors of traditional wooden vessels. These overalls become both parts of the landscapes and disruptive focal points to them. In one painting, the red of a clam digger’s bib lights up like a holly berry against the green of a skiff, the greens of beach shrubs, and the blues, grays, and browns of the water, sky, and beach. 

In his two distinct styles of painting, di Pietro displays his artistic versatility, creativity, and range of interests. “I’m painting for myself,” he notes. That said, gallery owner Chris Morse represents both of di Pietro’s lines. He shows his classical everyday impressionistic paintings at Edgartown’s North Water Gallery, while he shows his mixed media contemporary pieces at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury. Morse’s third gallery, the Granary, often features his work, as well. In addition, di Pietro shows his work at Mikel Hunter’s gallery in Hudson, NY and at JCO’s in Los Gatos, CA. 

The Main Street Gallery in Falmouth, which opened this winter, will also represent him. Online, di Pietro actively posts his art on Facebook and Instagram, and he operates a side project on the latter platform, found at #onthewarehousefloor. Here, he’ll take a blotch from a warehouse floor or from the street or from the rock of a jetty and transform it into a little piece of art, which he then documents in a short video. 

A Start by di Pietro

While he’s no longer the soda man making island-wide delivery rounds, Traeger di Pietro is sharing his love and emotions through his paintings on a regular basis. “I’m making art and posting it; all my new stuff is up on Instagram,” he says. And he’s looking forward to summer. “I love it when the island fills up, and I love the energy,” he says. “I love being around people.”

You can find Traeger online at traegerdipietro.com.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.