Staff Writer

As a painter, he’s got a great eye for color, lots of energy, and a self-taught technique that lends itself to subjects like music, pop culture, history, current events and fantasy.

He’s also got a colorful pen name, so to speak, to go with his art: iZM PRiZM.

When he’s not holding a paintbrush, he’s Orlando Santos, a longtime Holyoke native and resident who took up painting about four years ago as something fun he could do with his daughter, Wynter, then 14.

Orlando Santos talks about his art work in his studio in Holyoke.

These days Santos, who’s 50, is making a name for himself with his vivid and often large canvases. After exhibiting at 50 Arrow Gallery in Easthampton last year and a number of other sites, such as North Amherst’s Mill District, he has a collection of portraits on view at the Elusie Gallery, also in Easthampton.

These are not your run-of-the-mill portraits: On display are images as diverse as Tina Turner, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, Harriet Tubman, and the character of The Joker, as played by Heath Ledger in the 2008 Batman movie “The Dark Knight.”

During a recent interview in his studio, in Holyoke’s Baustein Building, home to several other artists, Santos said he finds inspiration from any number of other painters – Athol artist Nayana Lafond is one – but also “from music, from people, just from life, really.”

As one example, he says he watched a video of Charlotte Malin, a violist/violinist in the Valley who also teaches music on different levels, as she performed for some young children with significant physical disabilities. (Malin also runs a healing/spirituality business that uses music as a centerpiece of her work.)

Santos says he was so taken by Malin’s work with the children that he found a photo of her on the internet, pulled together a painting of her based on that, and gave it to the musician; the two are friends on Facebook.

“I was so amazed at what she did with those kids and had them moving, I just had to do that painting,” he said.

Santos gestures to one of his large-scale works, “Modern Day Van Gogh,” which includes a self-portrait as well as mini-portaits of noted artists including Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. A bandaged ear is one link between Santos and van Gogh.

Life has been an inspiration in other ways for him. When he was 6 months old, he had to have an operation to remove brain tumors and spent significant time in Boston Children’s Hospital.

“I didn’t know if I would make it, but here I am, 50 years old, still doing my thing,” he said.

Before turning to art, he worked as a hairdresser for years – he still does some private gigs for that – and he also went through a period of heavy drinking.

But he’s been sober for eight years now, he says, and between that and turning to painting, which is now his main gig, he feels he’s turned his life around.

“I have a lot of energy,” he said. “Which is good, because I’m juggling a lot of different projects.”

He also decided to develop an alter-ego as an artist, though more at first for laughs, as he writes in an artist’s statement: “I wanted to create my own cult or religion (as a joke) following, ie: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Judaism.”

He opted to vary the spelling of his artistic name, though, changing the “s” to a “z,” in part as a reference to the debut album “Baduizm” by rapper/singer/songwriter Erykah Badu.

Thus was born iZM PRiZM. “My idea of iZM is my own way of ‘doing things,’ which carries over to my art,” he writes.

Orlando Santos in his studio in Holyoke. A self-taught painter, he gets his subject material from all over — from “life,” as he puts it.

Color, abstraction and detail

Santos has created large portraits and murals of some other popular figures, like Louis Armstrong and Jay-Z. And shortly before his late father, Victor, died, he completed one of his dad, who he says had told him “You’re crazy!” when he first took up painting as a way to make a living.

“(My dad) appreciated that portrait,” he said.

He made his first foray into art using charcoals and cray-pas, but he found the work too dark, both in terms of color and theme. Today he works with acrylic paints and a few other materials, and he uses a variety of backings – canvas, wood, stiffened dropcloths – for his paintings.

In terms of developing his technical skills, he says he took the same approach he’s used for finding topics for his paintings: “I just try to take in everything around me.”

He works in big, bold strokes, using a combination of bright colors, abstraction, and detail that give his paintings both a folk art and pop art sensibility.

“I was immediately drawn to his work, then his personality when he showed up on my (Facebook) feed last year,” Jean-Pierre Pasche, owner of the Elusie Galley, said in an email. “I love the fact that he started playing around with paint with his daughter, then discovered he had ‘something.’”

Santos has also sketched other chapters of his life into some of his paintings, like “Modern Day Van Gogh.”

The painting is centered on a large side view of himself after he’d had surgery on his left ear, which is bandaged. Ranged around two sides of the five-by-five-foot work are the much smaller faces of five famous artists: Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Vincent van Gogh (with bandaged ear himself).

Another work, “The Duel,” shows two ropy-looking fencers, their torsos, legs, and arms all twisted sinews, having it out with each other. It’s something of a self-portrait, Santos says, as he once was a fencer; in the painting, he’s rooting for his better self to win.

He says he’s grateful for people who have helped him in his life, like his four children, who he often references in his paintings with dots or other symbols. He also works some variation of a “W” into his work as a tribute to Wynter, who’s now 18 and headed to college.

And Santos is working on a new portrait, one of a Holyoke ophthalmologist, Alfred Hutt, who he says kept treating his family when he was kid even when they had some problems with health insurance.

Meantime, up on the wall to the right is a picture of him as an infant, with scars on his skull from his surgery, sitting in the lap of Santa Claus.

“I want to give people hope, because I feel fortunate to be doing what I’m doing,” he said.

“The Summer of iZM” is on view at Easthampton’s Elusie Gallery through Sept. 2. An artist’s reception takes place Aug. 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. You can find more examples of iZM PRiZM’s work at

The artist is also available for commissions for portraits during the course of the exhibit (he’ll paint your pet, too). You can reach him through the Elusie Galley at (413) 529-9265 or

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at