Beauty in unexpected places: Pittsfield artist covers home with collage



Ken Diorio can easily get lost in his one-room apartment at the Pittsfield YMCA.

"I get so involved in my artwork," he says, that hours, even days will go by unnoticed.

His artwork is a 10-year, ongoing fantasy creation. He calls it "Dreamland."

Over the past decade he has covered nearly every square inch of his living space -- walls, doors, ceiling, window shades, even the insides of drawers and cabinets -- with meticulously cut-out magazine images -- tens of thousands of them -- that he tapes in place to form complex collage murals. If he runs out of space, or spots a flaw in his design, he takes down what he's done and starts all over again.

Surprisingly, he does all this despite frequent seizures, the result of a head injury he sustained in a motorcycle accident on Tamarack Road 22 years ago.

"It feels like I'm being picked up by an invisible giant and tossed all over the place," is how he describes the seizures.

Still, he can stay focused and steady-handed as he cuts out figures and faces with a razor and tapes them into an orderly, balanced composition.

To enter his living space is like stepping into a jewel box of brilliant color, albeit one with a sagging couch, blaring TV set and a beer bottle invariably on the coffee table.

Diorio, 59, is what the art world would call an "outsider artist," self-taught and driven by some inner vision to do what he does. He is proud of his work -- "I am the best," he often says -- but he denies his compositions have intentional stories behind them or are even particularly original. He says that because he uses pictures of artworks created by other artists.

Yet anyone who spends time inside "Dreamland" will readily see his intuitive sense of design, and how his placement of recognizable faces and figures from famous artworks says something new, unconventional, often humorous, and entirely his own. By mixing Gothic, Renaissance and Impressionist art figures with ones from pulp fiction, Victorian advertisements and Norman Rockwell illustrations, Diorio has created his own jigsaw remix of art history.

Raised in the Berkshires, he served overseas with the U.S. Army and worked as a truck driver before the 1992 motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. Unable to return to work, he said he lives on a disability income. He moved into his apartment, one of a number at the YMCA managed by the Berkshire Housing Development Corp., in 2003.

Diorio says he never studied art, but often saw "color and patterns" in his mind as a young man.

He started on his project in a casual way in 2004 after a friend gave him a Norman Rockwell calendar.

"Not a person on this planet doesn't like Norman Rockwell," he said.

He cut out the characters, taped them to his closet door, liked the way they looked and "got carried away."

A friend gave him stacks of old magazines and Diorio added issues of National Geographic and American Heritage that he bought at Goodwill, publications with the kinds of historical art subjects on heavy stock paper that he prefers.

Typically, he will sit for hours cutting out figures, faces and objects, choosing only those that can be presented whole, and not in partial views. Sometimes he works in black and white, but mostly he prefers color. He tapes his edges in bright blue and covers door and window frames with postage stamp-size stickers.

He puts the cutouts aside in boxes or drawers until he's ready to use them, and then picks a single one as a centerpiece. From it, he works outward, selecting cutouts that "fit," as he puts it, and rejecting those that don't.

"Fit" means more than just going together as in a jigsaw puzzle. The figures and objects in his compositions echo and play off each other in visual conversations.

On a wardrobe door, for example, Holbein's Henry VIII forms a trio with Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and a figure from Renoir's "La Loge." Elsewhere a saucy-faced Ann Margaret gazes over the head of a thoughtful President Kennedy, both by Norman Rockwell. In a pulp-fiction corner, actress Jane Russell smolders over muscle-bound actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger as Godzilla snarls nearby.

In the kitchen area, a pen-and-ink Bob Hope by Norman Rockwell beams cheek-to-jowl with sketches of the Rockwell family above figures drawn from the illustrator's iconic "Freedom of Speech" painting.

What they mean is for the viewer to decide.

"It's so easy, I don't think about it," Diorio says, though he adds that anything out of place, any "flaw" he detects in the massing of faces and figures is quickly removed and replaced. Bookcases, bureaus and other furnishings he has bought second hand and embellished are stacked against the walls.

Diorio said he occasionally sells a piece for under $100, but has mostly given his work away to friends. Ten examples were exhibited at City Hall several years ago and a number are currently on view and for sale at Museum Facsimiles off Park Square.

Pittsfield's Director of Cultural Development Megan Whilden, who visited Diorio's apartment some time ago, said, "I was impressed with Ken's astounding collection of art, both panels and collages on every possible surface. Who knew such powerful dedication and relentless creativity was there, inside the YMCA's apartments? Beauty appears in unexpected places, as does artistic expression."

Diorio talks of becoming famous and making money through his art, but in a thoughtful moment, he sees what he's doing as his testament.

"It will show that my life meant something," he said.


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