The Sum of Parts
Artist Ben Varela builds masterpieces from minutiae
It’s difficult to talk to Ben Varela about Ben Varela. He’s disinterested in discussing himself—he feels it’s his duty to promote others he has worked with or who have influenced him. This selfless promotion is what makes Varela so interesting; his work reflects these same concepts, and they come alive on his easel.
Since arriving in the Rio Grande Valley, Varela has been a mainstay of the local art scene. He is affiliated with the Narciso Martinez Cultural Center in San Benito and co-curated the exhibit Graphico Popular En Chicago in June 2006. He is also a member of the Harlingen Art Forum and teaches art at UTPA and STC.
Varela is known for his unmistakable style, which uses dots and patterns to depict a personal iconography, or “abstract iconography”. They are based on certain events or images that relate to what he is trying to portray in each piece. Varela lights up when discussing these symbols, as they arouse some of the same memories that he had when creating them. He feels that the “power of the image” gives meaning to his work.
Varela uses images ranging from flying turtles to checkered horses, cats, giraffes and “casitas” with faces (giving observers some insight into his cultural background). These images remind Varela of things that, in his mind, personify the subject of his work.
Some images Varela uses (and his detectable accent) hint at his New York upbringing. He was born in Brooklyn, and lived there shortly before moving to Puerto Rico with his family. Much of his paintings carry the influences of his childhood in both environments. As he grew older, his father was unconvinced that he should pursue a career in art. So, like any rebellious youngster, Varela set out to Wisconsin to attend art school. Much to his father’s chagrin, Varela’s large abstract print, or monotypes, would eventually be displayed in the Bronx Museum.
In the 80s, Varela moved to Chicago and was a member of the respected Mexican Printmaking Workshop. During this period, he made monotypes and worked alongside many prominent artists that made a lasting impression on him, through technique and ideology. After accepting a job in Kingsville, TX doing monotypes, he received his BA in Fine Arts from Texas A&M-Kingsville.
Eventually, he received his master’s degree from The University of Texas – Pan American in 2005.
In most areas Varela visits, he leaves behind some of his work to be displayed for public viewing. In Texas, it was left at the Museum of South Texas History in Corpus Christi. His work acts as breadcrumbs left behind, giving observers a glimpse into where he has been and his influences to that point. Perhaps they are a personal reminder about who he is and where he comes from.
Varela remembers the names of acquaintances, places he has been and organizations he’s worked under with an uncanny accuracy. His remarkable memory aids his impressive efforts at symbolism, making his style and technique unique and his experiments with color inspiring.
The small details of Varela’s work make it unique. Perhaps, the artist feels as though the individuals he wishes to promote are the small details that make him who he is. Like his work, which is comprised of small details that make up a whole, he wants his audience to appreciate each of them as much as they do him. After all, each symbol represents a memory, each color a different mood and all represent the influences that make Ben Varela. Like his work, it is all in the details.