Piecing Together Art

Rita Ortolino-Dioguardi creates collages and quilts with spontaneous inspiration and painstaking care

In the third of an occasional series, Tufts Now highlights the hidden talents of Tufts faculty and staff.

Rita Ortolino-Dioguardi begins her day thinking about art. Getting up around 6 a.m., sitting on the edge of her bed, she’ll start tearing magazine pages into tiny pieces. And then some days, over the next couple of hours, she will transform those pieces into a collage, carefully putting them together like pieces of a puzzle that only she knows the pattern to.

Ortolino-Dioguardi then heads to work at Tufts. She’s been at the university for more than 35 years, the last 20 as an administrator for the Department of Dance and Drama, tending to faculty and students with energy and a big smile. Earlier this year, she won a Tufts Distinction Award for “accomplishing the extraordinary every day.”

She brings that same dynamism to her art, which includes not only collages but quilts, sometimes loud and splashy, other times subtle and delicate. Her inspiration comes from a variety of sources: a color, a place, something someone said. Bad Hair Day is a collage of a woman in a dress with her hair flying above her head. Marketplace is an explosion of colors: in a tropical locale, people sit with baskets of food under a tree, the leaves and shade full of greens and blues.

Ortolino-Dioguardi, who keeps a rotating gallery of such works in her office, began making art when she was a small child. “There were a lot of magazines around when I was little, and I’d pick them up and start ripping and would say, ‘This is a great color,’” she says. “I got glue and started sticking the pieces of the magazine onto paper.”

She says she relishes “getting a blank piece of paper and making it come to life. And I love working with colors. It relaxes me, and it’s spontaneous, which I enjoy.”

She stores stacks of magazines for her collages and scraps of fabric for quilts. “People give magazines to me because they know I do this,” says Ortolino-Dioguardi, who was a teacher at the Tufts Educational Daycare Center and later worked at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School before joining the drama and dance department. “I love National Geographic because I love the paper. And I have odds and ends of material from people. I save everything, and I iron the pieces and fold them until I’m ready to use them.”

She never knows what ideas will stimulate her thinking. “I’ll wake up and may have a vision of something and just get going. When I did Bad Hair Day I worked on a Saturday morning from about 6 to 8. Then I was done, and I put gloss on it and framed it. I went downstairs, made coffee, sat on the porch and let the collage dry in the sun.”

She follows the same approach with her quilts as she does with her collages. She doesn’t keep to formal patterns, but instead spontaneously pieces fabric parts together. “My quilts are not like the old-fashioned ones,” she says. “I say, Let’s do something different, let’s be creative. I’ll take some material, put it in a pile and iron it and start with something. Sometimes there’s a pattern, sometimes there isn’t.”

Whether making a quilt or a collage, Ortolino-Dioguardi works painstakingly. A collage with blue and red flowers is made up of hundreds of tiny pieces; a butterfly probably thousands. “Making pictures piece by piece could drive some people crazy, but it relaxes me,” she says. “When I’m working everything else is gone.”

While Ortolino-Dioguardi’s work has appeared in art exhibits and galleries, her home is her main showplace; she welcomes anyone there who wants to see the quilts and collages. But they are not for sale. Why? “I put my whole heart and soul into them. How do you separate from something when it’s part of you?”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

Back to Top