Noncreative moments rare for Harrisville artist, entrepreneur

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Marylou DiPietro with bags and material at Reincarnations Fiber Art Studio in Harrisville.

M arylou DiPietro wears many hats. A self-starter with unbridled creative vision, she’s a published poet and writer, playwright, mosaic artist, wife and mother. And, to add to the list, she’s tapped into her entrepreneurial reserve and has embarked on a journey into the world of fashion.

It’s a Wednesday morning at DiPietro’s Reincarnations Fiber Art Studio in Harrisville, and there’s no shortage of used clothing in the room. In fact, it’s everywhere: an old biker jacket, a faux fur leopard-print pea coat, a black satin cocktail dress, a houndstooth-patterned sport coat, even a wetsuit. But, the clothing isn’t hanging on hangars or neatly folded on a shelf. It’s more of a deconstructed, mixed display that is far more interesting, compelling and enticing.

DiPietro has given faded flannel and worn leather new life. They’ve been “reborn” into kitschy chic computer and IPad cases, handbags, tote bags, even checkbook covers. The periwinkle bridesmaids dress is especially lucky and gets to be Cinderella in its second life. Or, Cinderella’s clutch purse, anyway.

DiPietro started Reincarnations Fiber Studio in 2009 following an encounter with an eager computer store salesperson who tried to talk her into buying a computer case to house her new “green” Lenovo Netbook.

“He said ‘this is the greenest,’ trying to sell me a case made with neoprene. I thought to myself there’s no way I’m going to buy this.”

On her drive home, her artistic side and entrepreneurial spirit had a meeting of the minds trying to come up with a better alternative.

“Almost everyone needs a laptop case, so why not make them out of materials that already exist? I was already a knitter and had been thinking about making things from old sweaters,” she said. “A lightbulb went off, and I decided to try and make a case and a bag out of a sweater.”

Enlisting the help of a friend who had more sewing and pattern design experience than she did at the time, DiPietro kick-started her business and was soon experimenting with a variety of fabrics from used clothes.

“But, I learned pretty quickly that whoever was going to be doing the sewing needed to work on an industrial machine because of the thickness of some of the materials, especially leather.”

A few months after starting the business, DiPietro met Noi McEwen, who is a master seamstress and now does the majority of the sewing and hand stitching for the company.

“She’s amazing — she can sew anything,” DiPietro said of McEwen. “She’s originally from Thailand, has been sewing since the age of 10 and used to make costumes for her grandfather’s Chinese Opera company.”

It wasn’t long before DiPietro was able to shop her creations locally and throughout New England.

“Her bags? I love them,” said Barbara Michelson, a repeat customer and a weaving artist. “I carried one of her wool bags throughout the summer even though I knew it wasn’t weather appropriate, because I couldn’t part with it. Marylou has taken pieces I have woven and put them together — a partly silk bird’s-eye weaving put together with a remnant of a motorcycle jacket. It’s just great; her combinations are definitely unique.”

DiPietro grew up in Fitchburg, Mass., went to Colby-Sawyer College in New London, took some classes at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, and then transferred to Syracuse University. After graduating with a bachelor’s in English, she decided it was time to experience urban living but was having a hard time deciding whether she should move to New York or Boston. At the urging of a friend who had an extra room, she ended up in the Big Apple.

“I had a fear of cities and decided I wanted to conquer this, so I headed to New York not knowing many people, with $100 in my pocket, feeling like I didn’t have any marketable skills.”

Still, DiPietro sent out a slew of resumes to publishing companies, including one to Leroy Neiman’s print publisher Knoedler Publishing. One snowy day in 1976, she got a call.

It was from Leroy Neiman’s wife, Janet.

“He’d seen my resume and my last name had gotten his attention; he wanted to meet me,” she recalled. “I walk into Hotel Des Artistes and he comes over from his studio, in the middle of winter and he’s in cut-offs with paint all over them.“

Neiman, who was awarded an honorary degree from Franklin Pierce College in 1976, was curious. He noticed that she’d taken classes at Franklin Pierce and wanted to know if she knew a man named Frank DiPietro. “That’s my dad!” she exclaimed. In fact, Frank DiPietro founded Franklin Pierce College (now Franklin Pierce University) in 1962. Neiman hired her on the spot.

“I got the job as a studio assistant,” she said. “He liked that I didn’t care if he was famous or not — or about the athletes he painted. They never had children so I was like the Neimans’ daughter.”

She put her talent for writing to work, collaborating with Neiman on his book “Horses.”

“I helped write the text, co-authoring the book,” she said. “That whole experience was life-changing. People often think Leroy was just this guy who created the mural for the 1976 Olympics and painted sports figures, but prior to that, he had already created an amazing canon of work.”

Although Neiman passed away last year, DiPietro is still very close to Janet and visits her often.

“Marylou’s imagination and talent is amazing,” Janet Neiman said. “From her beautiful poetry to the practical purses made from recycled fabric, everything she creates has a unique quality. She’s also a loving and loyal friend and has a sensitivity that is reflected in all aspects of her life and her art.”

DiPietro and her husband of 30 years, Andrew Maneval, moved to the area from Newton, Mass., in 1998. Their 1859 farmhouse, with its sprawling pastures and babbling brook in the backyard, provide the ideal setting for DiPietro’s other artistic endeavors. And, it’s where she has her second studio — her writing studio.

DiPietro met her future husband only a few months after she arrived in New York; he was going to Fordham Law School. Maneval, who is an arbitrator and mediator, specializing in reinsurance issues, has his own business, Chesham Consulting LLC, in Harrisville. DiPietro describes him as her toughest critic but also her biggest supporter.

“People are endlessly interesting to Lou,” Maneval said. “She is always searching, in her writing, for motivations (which she often does with me in daily life, too, and not always to my credit!), back-stories, confessions, agendas, and all kinds of outpourings of emotion.”

For Reincarnations, that interest is channeled into getting just the right colors, patterns and textures together to fit what someone really seems to want — even if no such combination has ever been seen before. When she says her bags are “unique,” she means it. Underneath both her writing and business, though, is a huge reservoir of compassion and empathy.

“That’s what makes her so special,” said Maneval, whose office is in the old woolen mill across the street from the Reincarnations studio. “We can wave to each other,” DiPietro joked.

DiPietro’s house, a post and beam structure, has a very different vibe than the Reincarnations studio. It also represents a milestone in DiPietro’s life.

“It’s a gift I gave to myself on my 50th birthday.”

Windows and skylights allow natural light to flood the space even on the cloudiest day. There is an eclectic mix of art pieces that adorns the unfinished walls, including a few of DePietro’s mosaics, some made using earth tone colored ceramic tile, others from pieces of sparkling light pink and emerald green glass gleaned from a mirror. Oil paintings and drawings are also part of the mix and, in one corner, there is a small, unframed photo of Leroy Neiman.

A wood stove rests on a large mosaic “tile” DiPietro pieced together. “This is where I start every day, early in the morning, when I read and write without any distractions before going over to the Reincarnations studio,” she said. “Watching the flames in the stove in the winter, listening to the river flow ... I can never be bored if I’m in nature. It inspires me.”

It’s in this studio that DiPietro finished “Snow on the Brain,” a book of poetry inspired by a fellow artist and painter. It’s a unique pairing of prose and paintings, with DiPietro writing poems inspired by each individual painting. It was a bittersweet undertaking for DiPietro, whose sister Theresa was terminally ill at the time.

“We were still living in Massachusetts when I met Marguerite McDonald, a painter who was keeping a visual journal,” she said. “She has severe Multiple Sclerosis. At the time I met her, my sister had been diagnosed with a rare form of neuro-endocrine cancer so I was going through this process with my family, with my sister. I was really intrigued with what Marguerite was doing. She was using her own MRI images as the foundation for her paintings and this was helping her deal with her illness.

“I really responded to her artwork. When my sister passed away, I started to write poetry in response to Marguerite’s paintings and the first poem was about her painting called “Acceptance,” which Marguerite said was the hardest painting for her to do. My response was to the painting, but also spoke to what my sister had gone through — it was the acceptance of losing someone you love to an illness. That was a very difficult poem to write.”

The “Snow on the Brain” exhibition made its debut at the Very Special Arts (VSA) exhibit in Boston in 2012 with DiPietro doing a poetry reading from the book on opening night.

“Marylou’s poetry is remarkably empathetic,” said Charlie Washburn, executive director of VSA Massachusetts. “Her poetic responses to the paintings in the chronicle of a painter’s experience of Multiple Sclerosis in ‘Snow on the Brain’ literally give voice to the complex emotions associated with the onset of disability.”

Since its release, “Snow on the Brain” has earned a lot of attention, including being published in The Healing Muse, a literary journal published out of SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y.

It’s rare when DiPietro’s not in her creative zone because, as she said, “artists live in their head.” But, during her down time, she and her husband like to go to the movies, with a preference for foreign and indie flicks. Back at her house in the kitchen, DiPietro makes grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch even though she’s adamant that she’s not into the culinary arts.

“I don’t like to cook at all!” But, as it turns out, she makes a mean grilled cheese.