February 11, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Eli Rigatuso has a knack for uncovering beauty. He has been known to stop his car to investigate a particularly exceptional flower in somebody’s yard. He is a man who happily recounts being stopped in his tracks by an unexpected patch of wildflowers blooming through the underbrush.

This devotion to the smallest of details in life has characterized Rigatuso’s unique vision from a young age. “I was always fascinated by trying to capture little things,” he says of his earliest explorations of visual art as an 8-year-old with a camera. Prints of close-up photos of the wonders of everyday life, as seen through his personal lens, stacked up as he developed an artistic eye for the unexpected.

Walking into Rigatuso’s North Omaha home is like encountering a surprising glimpse of a lilac decorating your route to work. Now a professional photographer and videographer, his affinity for finding the unexpected extends to his growing collection of works from local artists.

Rigatuso welcomes visitors on a guided exploration of his 21-piece collection. “I’ve had people walk in here who have said the energy in this place is unbelievable,” he says, gesturing to the massive, awe-inspiring painting of a young man with soulful eyes that greets guests. Equally impressive is the drag queen painted on a plastic shower door that divides the living room and kitchen. Next to that are the elegant photos of the annual Metropolitan Community College Intertribal Powwow. The entire collection radiates a peaceful energy that’s undeniable.

Perhaps that energy is a hopefulness—a sense of truthfulness that can only be communicated through the work of local artists. Rigatuso uncovers art everywhere, and throughout his tour, he reiterates that his collection is defined by the profound story behind each piece. His voice trembles as he recounts the moment he first encountered the centerpiece of his collection—the young man with the soulful eyes. “It just literally took my breath away. The moment I saw it, I started crying.” He later learned the subject of the painting was a friend of the artist’s who had died of AIDS.

The artist, John Muñoz, was happy to negotiate with Rigatuso to ensure the work would be displayed in a home where it would be appreciated. When Rigatuso unrolled the painting after purchasing it, he was surprised to discover a second painting in the bundle. “I felt like it belonged to you, too,” explained the artist. Now hanging next to the young man in the living room, the painting is a complementary representation of a mother nurturing her children. It turns out, the paintings are both done on repurposed canvas posters from Muñoz’s day job at Whole Foods.

Many of Rigatuso’s pieces showcase repurposed materials. The collection also contains art done on particle board, a cabinet door, rescued pieces of discarded plastic, and sheet music. The artists run the gamut—a local coffee-shop owner, students, DJs, and everything in between. Each tells a unique story.

Another central piece to the collection features a mysterious woman in shades of blue hanging in the bedroom. It was painted by a stylist who cut Rigatuso’s hair on a day he spent celebrating his trans identity. On the mantle rests a painting of a fiery girl. It was purchased from a 20-year-old he happened to follow on social media. There is even photography from Rob Gilmer, owner of Council Bluffs’ famous home-cooking hot spot, Dixie Quicks.

Rigatuso’s diverse collection has got people talking. He has witnessed his home transform into a museum of Omaha artwork. “Everybody knows that I’ve got a lot of cool art. It’s kind of become a thing.”

But the private museum is about much more than buying art; it’s about cultivating community. “I want people to be encouraged by the fact that people see what they do as something that they want to own.” Rigatuso says. The real goal is “to be able to create an environment for people to come
and be a part of.”

This desire to create a welcoming space for all types of artists comes from a place of love rooted in Rigatuso’s own experience. “I’ve had an extraordinary life,” he declares with a laugh. “For the first 50 years of my life, I was something that the rest of the world could accept, and I was dying inside. And when I came out as trans, I feel like I set myself free.”

By creating a space where even beginning artists can feel their vulnerability is welcomed, Rigatuso hopes to free them of any doubts about the value of their creativity. “I really think that when you’re engaged in art, we’re engaging a part of ourselves that is true vulnerability,” he says. “When you paint or you photograph or you capture something and you have the courage to share it, you’re actually sharing a piece of yourself. And that to me is huge.”

As his collection grows, Rigatuso says he hopes to curate an art show next spring or summer. “If anything, I want to leave a legacy of art.”

Visit elirigatuso.me to find out more. 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.