September 1979 - The  Artist in Isolation

Sunday Today, The Sunday Star-Bulletin by Steve Spence (September 23,1979)

..... "There are only two cardinal sins from which all others spring: impatience and laziness." --Frank Kafka


 .... OLAA FOREST, Hawaii -- The realtors call it a subdivision, but the borders of its huge lots can only be seen on a surveyor's map, or from a helicopter.

.... In this subdivision, there is no electricity, no running water, no sewers, no phones, no paved roads, no street lights, no postal service. There is just the silence of the deep woods, interrupted only by birds and at times the furious, pounding rain unleashed by the brooding clouds that hang low over Kilauea Volcano higher up.

.... In the midst of this wild forest, the "subdivision" is really a maze, hiding some rather primitive homesteads 2,000 feet above the sea.

.... If you don't pay attention, you will miss the road off Highway 11 between Hilo and the volcanoes above. It is paved for about 500 yards, then it becomes gravel, then it narrows and finally, deep inside the woods, it is a barely passable dirt road. It cuts a bumpy, uneven swath through the forest of ohia trees that grow doggedly upward through the lava that has covered the land for centuries. Two miles inside, chest-high grasses surge through the center of the tiny road, as though the forest seems determined to erase this temporary passage built by man.

.... Some have lost their way in the woods, and for them the experience was doubtless terrifying. An 80-year-old woman wandered for two days before encountering another human being. Others don't go for walks without a compass.

.... It is beautiful and it is spooky. By day, the woods sparkle in the sun, and the sky seems bluer here. It is so silent at night that homesteaders up here get very nervous at the rarely heard sound of an approaching car.

.... But land is still cheap here, and it is a place to begin.


.... 'You just have to start, you have to begin somewhere," says Dietrich Varez with a great deal of conviction. He sits in the morning sun on the front deck of his new two-story home, which he built by hand and is almost completed.  He is wearing pajamas that are too short for his 6-foot-5 frame, and he looks out on the half-acre he cleared in the center of his nine acres, at the huge lawn he planted, at the vegetable gardens, the grape vines, the fruit trees that are now four feet high.

.... In the midst of the ohia forest, this house is such an achievement, such a surprise to see standing boldly in this wilderness, that realtors have asked permission to show it to prospective buyers, perhaps as evidence that despite the lava below, the thick woods around, the rains above, the cold nights and the isolation, it can be done.

.... The realtors probably would not show off a tiny, 10-foot-by-12-foot open air cabin built by Varez on a shelf of lava near the road. There are two beds inside -- one for him and his wife, Linda, and the other for their 13-year-old son, Dietrich Jr. -- a trunk, a small dresser and not much else. For 10 years, they have lived in this cabin, trapping rainwater, cooking on butane, reading by Coleman lamplight, determined to make a life in this natural setting.

.... When he was not working as a bartender up at Volcano House, or "pulling weeds on a golf course," Varez etched out scenes of ancient Hawaiiana on blocks of linoleum and encouraged Linda to paint the bold, oil canvases of old Hawaii that she is known for.


.... Today, at 40, Varez is probably the most prolific printmaker in Hawaii. In 10 years, he has produced some 30,000 prints by hand from 26 blocks. He refuses to charge a dime more than his original price: $4 for the small ones, $15 for the big ones. All of the prints are produced in a room of the cabin that is not much larger than a bathroom.

.... He has not left the Big Island in 10 years, and rarely ventures into Hilo. He has filed his former life on Oahu in the forget-it file. His brief career as an English composition teacher at the University of Hawaii is a vague memory, as are the seven years he spent as a boat builder, the years he and Linda spent living in the basement of a home on Wilhelmina Rise. Perhaps the last thing he wishes to remember is that day in 1969 when he and Linda turned over their savings for a chuck of land they had never seen.

.... They had seen the ad -- "9 Acres on the Big Island for $3,900!" -- in a newspaper and the next morning they drove to the bank, then to the realtor, and bought the land. Varez came alone to the Big Island, packing a tent, and went to inspect his property. The road was so bad, the map so vague, that he could not find it.

.... "I was a little worried, but not really. We knew that we owned nine acres. Somewhere."


.... During their first year on the Big Island, the Varezes were caretakers of some cabins at Volcano. During his free time, he built the cabin and eventually they moved in.

.... Varez is the adopted son of a local man who married Dietrich's German mother in Berlin during the war. He grew up in Palolo and Kailua, and adopted Hawaii as his own.

.... "At first I carved wooden tikis," he says, grinning. "Then I tried shallow-relief stuff, and finally the linoleum blocks. With wood-carving, you make something and sell it and you never see it again. There is a continuous reward with prints."

.... In the beginning -- the early '60's -- he made prints for friends, but soon had to many requests he had to charge for them.

.... The scenes strive to capture the raw simplicity of the Hawaiian past: women harvesting limu, a man pounding poi,


 two men in loincloths battling to pull an ahi into their canoe, opihi pickers. Others recreate scenes from legends. In all of them, he has used just one color, a rich earthy brown. The paper used for the smaller prints is raw and rough, ragged at the edges; the larger prints are on sturdy rice paper. His early prints have an almost crude, blunt look to them, but his two most recent works -- the opihi pickers and two fishermen lost in a cloudy mist -- are almost hynotizingly detailed, fluid, intricate.


.... "I try to do two things: please the viewer visually and give him a lesson, something from the past. Like the tying of canoes, fishing methods, things like that." He talks for awhile about the changes that have taken place in Hawaii in the last 20 years, and he stumbles on the term "melting pot."

.... "Yeah, the melting pot. Well, I'll tell you: the Hawaiian 'melting pot' is being melted right into oblivion. Linda and I feel like we're doing something to sustain it. Especially since it's been so neglected. There was a simplicity and a strength in the old ways, in their life, that . . . " and his voice trails off, but the thought is there: it is some inexplicable relationship they have with the land, some sense of flow with the forest that is difficult to describe; they have not conquered this wilderness, they have simply become a part of it.


.... It is dark, and a great chorus of crickets roars in the chill night. How long has it been since you've seen all the stars in this galaxy? Two lanterns light up the porch, and ohia wood burns in an open fire. Varez goes off to fetch something, and you're surprised at how quickly he vanishes in the dark. He is back in a few minutes, and you wonder how he maneuvers in the dark.

.... Until a year ago, Varez had to tend bar to support his family. Now, at last, he is able to live on the income from his art.

.... "Some people have told me that until I start charging more, I'm never going to become a 'known artist.' I think that's nonsense. You either like the print or you don't, and that shouldn't have anything to do with the price. My goal is to make art -- at least my art -- available to common people. I don't give a damn about the art people; I want to get it into your mom's house and my mom's house. There is so much egotism in art; it comes down to what you think you're worth. And I'm supposed to be a foot because you can buy my print for only four bucks.

.... "And down at some plush gallery on Oahu they're selling 'investment art.' You don't even hang it. It comes sealed, and you store it somewhere where the precious picture won't deteriorate. You don't even see it!" He grins an wags his head. "I did all my prints on the floor of that cabin. I'm down on all fours, man; my art comes with dirt and dog hairs on it. I like to think that the people who buy my prints know they're getting something for the deal. That's enough for me."

.... The four Varez dogs circle as we eat in the lantern light, the fire crackling in front of us. The house, Varez says, has taken much of his time the past 2 1/2 years. He bought the lumber with an inheritance he received on the death of his father in Germany, who he never saw after the war. The house is almost complete, and when it is finished, he will embark furiously on his goal: to become the most popular printmaker in Hawaii.

.... Perhaps a time will come, the visitor ventures, when he will become so popular that he will number his prints, destroy the blocks and jack-up the price.

.... "You know," he says, "there's something very un-Hawaiian about that, about destroying the block. The old tools had a certain mana (mystical power). Destroying the blocks is just a dumb tradition."

.... In the darkness, the dogs eat the scraps from the plates.

.... "When I started this, I figured there were just two ways for a printmaker to stand out: to be great -- a genius -- or to put a lot of prints in circulation. In the beginning, I gave them away. When I started charging for them, there were some people who still couldn't afford them, so I just gave them away. As a business, it comes down to three things: time, materials and vanity. It takes so much time, the materials cost so much, and then you add in that last factor: what you think you're worth. A print costs me time and 35 cents and the gallery gets half of the four bucks. So, I chop down on the vanity."


.... Twenty years ago, Dietrich Varez wanted only to be a writer, and his hero, who was to be the subject of his never-completed master's thesis, was the Austrian writer Franz Kafka, whose quotation about the evil of impatience and laziness begins this story. "But every time I tried to write, I ended up copying some other writer. I was Kafka, and then I was Nathanael West. That's why I avoid contact with other artists. I don't even want to discuss art or technique. I am afraid something might influence me, so I avoid that kind of contact."

.... What Varez has earned with his determination, and the belief that all you have to do is "to start someplace, to begin," is a perfectly unfettered and happy life, and the knowledge that he is doing what he wants to do. (The only thing he worries about is the prospect that the local "community association" will one day raise the money to pave roads, bring in electricity, increase property values and, in the process, break his heart.)

.... That Kafka-esque determination has earned him one more thing: Today, the first official gallery showing of his complete works opens on Oahu at Gima's Gallery in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, and runs through Oct. 13. A full-blown artist's reception was planned, but Varez declined. "I just couldn't do it. I would get all embarrassed, standing there shaking hands like an idiot. I just couldn't handle that." He grins, "And besides, my face turns bright red."

~


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