If you’ve taken a trip to Narragansett Beach or the Coast Guard House this summer, you’ve likely noticed small rocks stacked on top of one another at odd angles just below the sea wall. While some lay flat, others are stacked vertically, which make for quite the scene.
Beachgoers and restaurant patrons alike gather at the wall and marvel at the unique skill of building “cairns.” Cairns are used as trail and land markers, but in this case they are simply stone monuments.
But who’s responsible for the fascinating displays?
The answer is Warwick resident Joseph DiPietro, known to his loved ones as “J.D. Mystery,” who figured out he had a knack for the rock art as he was trying to get a woman’s attention at Block Island a few years ago.
“I went to one of my favorite spots – the Bluffs – and was enjoying the surfs, the sights and the ocean,” he said. “I was looking at the stones and decided I wanted to try to impress her by making a stone monument. She didn’t pay any attention, but I decided to try to make the rocks stand on edge and made them as tall as I could reach. I fell in love with it and it became a phenomenon because we’re not used to seeing that. It’s cute, yet freaky.”
DiPietro said he enjoys creating the rock art at beaches throughout the state, as well as helping other people learn the craft, especially children, individuals with handicaps and the developmentally disabled. He views it not only as a fun lesson in creativity but also confidence, as he encourages people to stay positive and believe they are capable of making beautiful art.
“It’s almost a form of therapy for people,” said DiPietro, who has made stacks as high as seven feet. “You’re not supposed to say, ‘I can’t,’ because I know you can. I have faith in you. The harder you challenge yourself, the more rewarding it will become. Like so many things in life, if you work at it, it will happen. If no one believes in you, believe in yourself.”
Of course, he feels a sense of accomplishment by doing it, too.
“To see the beauty in peoples’ faces is such an unbelievable thrill for them but also for my heart,” he said.
The phenomenon appeals to all sorts of people, said DiPietro, from brides to a rough bunch of bikers. While in Narragansett, four brides requested to have their wedding photos taken alongside the rock art, so DiPietro helped them over the wall.
At first, the bikers were knocking over his displays. But after talking with DiPietro, they had a change of heart.
“They all wanted to learn, so I showed them how to do it,” he said. “By the end of the evening, they wanted to have a photo shoot with me because they felt a sense of accomplishment. I feel like I turned some would-be thugs right around. That is one of my greatest success stories.”
In addition to his rock art skills, DiPietro enjoys sculpting sand castles at local beaches, as well as remodeling houses, including his home in Oakland Beach.
After viewing nearly 140 houses in Rhode Island and placing bids on at least 35 of them, he purchased his home for $84,000, which the city was ready to mark as condemned, as it was infested with mold due to flooding a few years ago. He said he knew he’d be able to get it back into shape because its foundation was still intact, plus it was already connected to the sewer line and had running water.
After cleaning out the mold, he invested a year and an additional $15,000 on improvements and supplies, such as sheet rock, wiring, a couch, dishwasher, mini blinds, tiles for his bathroom, as well as oak sheets he used to update the existing cabinets.
“It seems excessive, but I ate, worked and slept here,” DiPietro said.
Each day, he put in about 12 hours. For him, it didn’t feel like work.
“You’ve got to like what you are doing and the hours just pass,” he said. “Give an artist an opportunity to sit in front of a canvas and they’ll paint all day. The point is you need the opportunity.”
For the most part, he transformed the humble house into a one-of-a-kind home by using recycled materials. From the plate rack in his kitchen that he made from the crib he slept in as an infant, the wrought-iron staircase balusters he crafted from an old canvass-top gazebo, the window valances made from a plastic star-shaped Christmas ornament he found on the side of the road, to the vanity in his bathroom that he crafted from an old range hood of a stove, he made everything eclectic and welcoming.
Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of his home is the cost-efficient manner in which he heats it. In winter months, he stays warm with a heat-a-later, crafted from a non-functioning fireplace and an old wood stove he repaired. He used the backs of a cast-iron bench he found in the trash as vents.
“I haven’t paid an oil or a gas bill since 1970,” DiPietro said.
Further, he heats his home via a fireplace, which is located in his living room. In terms of firewood, he never has to lug logs through this house, as he constructed a vestibule that’s sandwiched by two doors; one that leads to his deck, the other that leads right to his living room next to the fireplace.
“I actually put a glass door in front of it so you can see it because it looks nice and very holiday-like,” he said.
DiPietro also has wooden planks, which he formerly used as staging at his job, as kitchen rails to hold pots and pans. He simply laminated them with the reverse side of oak paneling and put an oak nosing on it.
Additionally, he took old leaf springs from trucks he once owned and decided to use them to hold up his countertops.
“Until you point it out, nobody notices,” said DiPietro. “Even a mechanic wouldn’t notice.”
Speaking of mechanics, you’d think DiPietro is a mechanic from the looks of his motorcycle, a Road Star 1600, which is traditionally made as a right-handed vehicle, but he switched items to the left side.
That’s not all – he made the bike to resemble a horse, with the front fender sculpted from old drapery cloths and plastic resin. “My mother had the cloths and wanted to throw them away so I molded the bust of a horse over an old towel and used it as my front fender,” he said.
He also found an old string mop, the head of which he crafted to look like a horse’s tail for his back bumper.
So, what happens if he makes a mistake as he’s working? He just keeps going.
As he was staining his bedposts, which he crafted from three different bed sets, he accidentally splattered stain on one of his lampshades. After a failed attempt to clean it, he used a paintbrush and gave it a few splats of color to cover the blemish.
“I turned on the light and it looked like a southwest sunset,” he said. “The colors totally came alive.”
But don’t ask him how he made his unique granite-like countertops and floors – it’s a secret.
“The floor looks like something you’d see in a New York foyer of a hotel,” he said.
DiPietro, who was born in Providence and grew up in North Providence, credits his parents for his creative side. His mother, Peg, was a seamstress and his father, Carl, was a tinsmith.
“My father made things strong and durable; my mother always had the knack for making them beautiful,” he said.