Culture Captured: The Work of Anne Marie Varela
Anne Marie Varela captures what Valleyites take for granted
by David Alexander Gonzalez
Most of us have reveled in the pain or joy of certain moments—times where we are most vulnerable, when we let our guards down and allow ourselves to feel. For most of us, being vulnerable isn’t so easy to forget. We seem to instinctively remember times of vulnerability, because forgetting means fighting the urge for us to protect ourselves. Like the animals we are, survival is priority number one.
Artists tap into these impressionable memories of vulnerability and use their art as a way to express the emotions felt during these moments.
While talking to artist and 218 Gallery curator Anne Marie Varela, I discovered the motivation behind her family-oriented work and the emotion that fuels it.
Her paintings pay homage to her family and Hispanic culture, which her high school sweetheart properly introduced her to when they met. Images of menudo and tamales take her back to a time that puts a smile on her face, but also have some underlying sadness. They force her to remember the loved one she lost.
Moving all across the country as a young child, Varela was exposed to big- city life early on. Moving to Arizona, Illinois and eventually Washington, she followed along as her parents worked in factories. After the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, Varela’s mother chose to move the family to Texas. She believed it was a better environment in which to raise her Hispanic children.
The Valley was a change of pace. But here she met and married her high school sweetheart, who passed away in 2004.
She credits him with helping her find her Mexican roots—a memory that still is very emotional for Varela. His influence encouraged her to go to college, where she eventually discovered her talents as an artist while pursuing an education degree from UTPA. There, she met a professor who would encourage her to pursue art full-time. After graduating, she returned to attend the Master of Fine Arts program.
After some time, Varela re-married fellow artist and UTPA colleague Ben Varela (who is also a curator at the 218 Gallery). Now, she teaches art at PSJA Memorial High School in addition to her curator work. She uses the time off from the school during the holidays to focus on her art. “I don’t have a lot of time to create as much stuff as I’d like,” said Varela. “Since I don’t have much time, I’m using the time I have now to work as much as possible.”
Viewers can feel the attachments she has to her pieces and the emotions that she projects through her work. “Most people that live down here don’t seem to appreciate my work as much as people from up North,” said Varela.
“[Non-locals] usually are blown away by how different my work is to them.”
She hopes to communicate emotion to her audience, creating “something [they] can relate to”. Her works include Los Compadres and The Three Ladies, which conjure memories of her father and late husband; her mother and two aunts, sitting on a couch playfully discussing “who was bigger”.
At first glance, Varela’s work is all too familiar for Valleyites. Every character observed in her work exuberates the feeling of local culture.
Most often, Varela is praised with capturing the images associated with the people native to our area. “People always comment that they recognize the characters in my work, saying things like ‘That’s my grandma!’ which I enjoy because they have a relationship to it,” she explains.
Varela has captured something we, immersed in the culture of the Valley, take for granted: how unique and beautiful our families can be from an outside perspective. The same can be said for any culture, though we in the Valley seem especially quick to ignore this. We tend to dismiss things from this part of Texas as not being “original”. Sometimes taking a step back makes a large difference, making us more vulnerable and capable of feeling things we did not know where there.