When attending the opening of Nick Piliero’s art show held at the Northeast Kingdom Artisans Guild gallery in St. Johnsbury, I had no plans to interview the man. I had made an earlier decision to stop interviews altogether. However, what can one do when overwhelmed with curiosity…and color?
The artist was smiling, seated beneath a large somber Native American portrait. He was dressed in black with an explosion of colorful paint daubs all over his clothing. The next thing I know, he is loudly reporting to the room, “I’m 76 and I’m ready to go!”
“Oh dear,” I thought to myself, “He would make an interesting interview.”
His art is distinctive, standing out with striking color and strong edges that connect elements of his paintings. Many of the pieces caused my eye to see first one thing, then…hold on there… that image now becomes part of another, something altogether different. The first image is gone, the next one appears, and my eyes are flowing onto the next and back again. Curiosity won the day, and Nick graciously consented to an interview. Days later we sat down together in the gallery, surrounded by his vivid work.
Nick grew up in the Bronx and Westchester, New York. Living with his family in an Italian neighborhood, English wasn’t the primary language spoken. He identifies his mother as brilliant and his father as street-smart. A study hall teacher introduced him to art by handing him a piece of paper and pen and ink. “I drew for hours,” he says, “For me, the world stopped and I knew what I wanted to do.” Years later, his second wife would hand him paints and he would discover a whole new dimension for his creativity. In his own words, he writes, “When I picked up the brush, I knew this was what I was born for. Color is my passion; some love my color, some hate it.” It’s the ones that don’t react either way that bother him.
He has had three wives: Eileen (Wife #1), Kathleen (Wife #2) and Miriam (Wife #3). The three marriages represent markers in time for him.
Life with Wife #1 was difficult; both of them were using addictive drugs, Nick for years on heroin. It was during his time with her that he experienced his first and second (out of three) deaths. He wrote a note of explanation to a patron: “I am self-taught thru a death experience...my heart stopped, time seemed to be non-existent. No longer was I in my body…I was told that I was to be an artist. At the time I was a draftsman working in the Bronx, but the Voice from the Light told me that I am here on Earth to do the work of an artist.”
The voice also informed him that, “You cannot die, because you were never born.” As Nick explains it, you are either in your shell (your body) or out of it. That is all. The voice told him many things, including what many of us may remember as the Golden Rule. “The golden thread of life exists in all who are living, and the most important thing to learn is to do for others as you would have them do for you.” Most intriguing for Nick was to learn from the voice that he would have two sons late in life with a third woman, and he was to name the first Quentin.
His second death was the result of Wife #1 leaving him. “I tried to kill myself,” Nick reports; “it sent me into a coma for weeks.”
He came to the Northeast Kingdom in 1989 with Wife #2, Kathleen. “We were looking to get out of the city. I remember coming over the hill into Danville in the back seat of Larry Cahoon’s car, searching for a house. We stayed at the Danville Inn and eventually rented a house on Joe’s Pond.” Later, he and Kathy moved to Peacham, purchasing the brick parsonage as their home.
This was the time when, in his words, “I became a poster boy for Dr. Bob’s." I know the 12 steps very well, and the first 12 years on the program he was completely drug-free. This coming 4th of July, he will have been 30 years clean.
When his marriage with Kathy dissolved, Nick knew there was yet another woman to come into the picture. If the former voice was to be believed, Quentin and his brother were waiting.
Enter Wife #3, Miriam. He met her at a tag sale at the Recovery Center. Imagine her surprise when he announced to her that day that they were going to be married and would have two sons. “She ditched me for three months after that,” says Nick, “until I got a job drywalling her new store, Wool Away.” At the age of 54 and 56, he fathered Quentin and Frankie. Miriam’s father purchased a beautiful home for the family on Webster Street in St. Johnsbury, and Nick was delighted with the tasks and treasures of raising the boys. “Your children are very much a part of you. When I leave, I will still be here with them.”
The third death was relatively recent, after his marriage to Miriam dissolved. He was staying at his friend’s apartment while his apartment was being sprayed for debugging. ”I must have had an asthma attack; my friend heard me, came in, and said I was blue!” She and her neighbor gave him mouth-to-mouth, called the ambulance and they whisked him away to the ER.
These experiences with death have, in a sense, calmed him and given him more purpose. The thought of death does not hold him in a fearful grip; instead, he looks forward to the time when he is complete and ready to stay in the other realm.
The house on Webster Street is sold, the boys are grown, and Nick finds himself now free to paint at will in his small upstairs apartment. He explains the sheer joy of it in a letter he wrote to a patron: “Picasso said ‘Anyone can paint pretty pictures; great artists paint ideas.’ There seems to be an inner force in me that guides me when painting; it’s like the brush is doing the work--not me. I paint every day…Light, Harmony, and a Quiet Mind.”
He remembers a stirring moment from an earlier time period. During a rainstorm, he watched out a window that faced a birdbath, nearing the time when the birds would soon be heading South for the winter. He was struck with sadness when he saw a bird among them with an injured wing. How was that bird going to make the trip, he wondered.
The Voice answered him in these words:
“Birdie with a broken wing
How I wonder why you sing
Spring to summer winter comes
Your song will die into bitter hums
Ignorance they say is bliss
And knowledge is a bitter kiss
Sing birdie, sing!”
Before we parted, I had to ask Nick just one more question. “Why did you speak out so strongly that day and say ‘I’m 76 and I’m ready to go!’”
He looked down, half-closed his eyes, and smiled slightly, “Because it is so beautiful, so beautiful…everyone will want to go there.”
Nick has a patron named Voz that he calls his “angel.” Voz has supported Nick’s work for approximately 20 years. He was originally looking for a Picasso painting when he spotted a Piliero entitled, “Flowers for Gaza.” The two met and became friends, and Voz has since collected many of Nick’s paintings. He is currently working on a book describing Nick’s works and what generated them.
To view more of Piliero’s work online, go to the website “Yessy” and search Piliero under All Art. As of this writing, you will find 1,697 colorful images in the collection. Prolific!