October/November 2005 - The People's Printer

In Pele's homeland Dietrich Varez inks the stories of the islands story by David Thompson photos by Kirk Aeder (Hana Hou! The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines, Oct/Nov 2005)

..... Varez lovingly points out the details of the furo's construction to me: the way the nails fasten the copper bottom to the redwood sides, the rebar supporting it over the fire, the corrosion-resistant brass screws joining the pieces of redwood together. This furo, he says, is going to hold up a lot longer than the last one, which be built with pine and galvanized nails, and which simply fell apart after a few years of rainforest exposure and heavy use.

.... Varez dips a finger into the warming water and smiles, his brown eyes lighting up beneath his bushy gray eyebrows in anticipation of the long soak he'll take after dark.

.... "You sit out here soaking in the middle of the forest at night," he says, "and there's not any sign of civilization around, and when the sky's clear and the stars are out, Oh Man! You Know?"


.... A tall sixty-six-year-old with lanky arms and legs, Varez has huge bare feet, big ears, a white mustache, a tousled mess of uncombed gray hair and a kind face. He's best known for block-screen prints that delve into the myths, legends, flora, fauna and daily life of ancient Hawai'i. The mischievous demigod Maui pulling an island out of the sea from his canoe, a silversword in full bloom, a pig hunter burying a spear in the back of his quarry, 'opihi pickers keeping wary eyes on the menacing surf -- these are the sort of images Varez brings into being with cinder-brown ink on white paper.

.... Varez finds his muse in the isolated, wet, fiery environs surrounding the two-story home he built in this rainforest thirty years ago, using only hand tools. From the house's upper level, occupied by his studio, he watched as Pu'u 'O'o -- the cinder-and-spatter cone that formed during Kilauea's fountaining-eruption period in the early '80's -- rose up from nothing eight miles away.

.... If he could, Varez would not emerge from his rainforest retreat. He's perfectly content staying put with his wife Linda, creating art, gardening, tending to his fifteen acres and taking long soaks in the furo. Lately though, as his career has heated up, he's been called away increasingly. He's happy for the recognition. But the price of success has been the disturbance of his tropical sanctuary, and he pays it grudgingly.

.... "I'd rather stay here and do stuff around the house," he says. "When I have to go, I go. But if I had my way, I'd never leave."

.... For a recluse, Varez is mighty sociable. He loves to meet new people, catch up with old friends and try out his homespun philosophies on whoever's interested. Still, he only just had a telephone installed a few years ago -- a concession to the world's growing interest in his work and the hassle of hauling himself to the pay phone at the Hirano Store whenever word arrived that someone like me was trying to reach him. For three decades he also lived without electricity. He reluctantly hooked up to the grid, too, a few years back, a concession to his advancing age and desire to avoid falling down unlighted stairs at night.

.... "We finally plugged into the public nipple, but we don't abuse it," he says. "We just use it for what's absolutely necessary. We don't have hair dryers and blenders and computers and all that crap -- all the hairspray of life."

.... As Varez shows me around, we enter a big clearing occupied by a vegetable garden and a shallow pond filled with tilapia fish, which he raises for food. At the end of the pond, swallowed by brush, sits a concrete structure that looks an awful lot like a bomb shelter. "That looks like a bomb shelter," I say. It is, he says, without missing a beat in the explanation of how he siphons green muck from the bottom of the pond to fertilize his dryland taro. "You have a bomb shelter?" I persist. "Well, you can use it in a hurricane, too," he says. Then we wander over to the vegetable garden to inspect the green peppers and collard greens.

.... I suppose if anyone is Hawai'i can appreciate a bomb shelter, it's Varez. Born in Berlin in 1939, he spent a good deal of his formative years hiding in one as the Allies bombed the city to smithereens. "My father was a big-time Nazi," Varez



says. "He had to run for it when Germany went down and the Russians came in, so we were alone, my mother and my brother and I. An American soldier married my mother and brought us to Hawai'i in 1948. That's why I have this Spanish name. I spend only a few years in Germany, and it was pure misery. We lived in the absolute pits. When I came to Hawai'i, all of a sudden there was food, people were nice, every building hadn't been destroyed. When you're starved and you're a war refugee, and then you come to a place like Hawai'i, you've gone from hell to heaven. I owe a lot to Hawai'i nei."


.... In the 1960's Varez did a few years as a graduate student of the English department at the University of Hawai'i, joined the U.S. Army, made second lieutenant, then served in the reserves while working on boats at the Ala Wai Marina in Honolulu. At the boatyard he met Linda, a painter and California surfer girl. They got hitched, had a son, bought some cheap land on the Big Island sight unseen and moved there in 1968 to homestead. At this point, Varez had no idea that he was an artist.

.... To make ends meet, he tended bar around the village of Volcano. Occasionally, he applied the woodworking skills he developed in the boatyard to carving Pele heads and other things to the odd piece of 'ohia. Once just for kicks, he slathered some ink on a carving and pressed it onto a piece of paper. He liked the results and started carving blocks specifically for printing, giving away the prints to whoever wanted one. Everybody did. The freebies quickly got out of hand, so he put a $4 price tag on them to cover costs. Demand kept growing.

.... When the nonprofit Volcano Arts Center opened in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park in 1974, Varez prints were the first artworks on sale. By 1980 the center was selling so many Varezes, that Varez threw in his bartending dishtowel and devoted himself to full-time art. The center remains the primary outlet for his work.

.... Over the years, he's switched from wood blocks to linoleum and jacked up the price of his cheapest prints to $5. His most expensive hand-made prints cost just $20. He can price them to move because unlike traditional printmakers, who work in limited editions and destroy their blocks when the last prints are made, Varez will print with a block until it wears out. Printmaking is pop art, he feels, and pop art is for the people.

.... Varezes turn up in offbeat places: in newspaper ads and on bulletin board flyers, thanks to an agreement he made with a clip-art company; on the cover of the monthly Hawaii Medical Journal, thanks to a Honolulu gallery owner and fan who's married to the journal's editor; on the backs of businessmen, newscasters and the occasional white-collar criminal trying to look good in court, thanks to the fabric designs he does for aloha wear maker Reyn Spooner. His work also appears in a number of books, including four he has written himself, and others that include 'Olelo No'eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, by renowned Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui.

.... Lately, Varez has gotten more and more painting commissions from serious art collectors, and upstairs in his studio he shows me his latest: a huge foil featuring a chain of menehune merrily building a heiau. Varez wants to show me the knives he carves his blocks with, too, but he's packed them away for a trip he's about to take. It's his tenth anniversary with Reyn Spooner, and he's going to do a printmaking demonstration at the company's flagship Honolulu store.

.... He's excited about the event, but the thought of leaving the rainforest, driving to the airport, flying to O'ahu, renting a car, driving to Ala Moana Center, driving back to the  airport and flying back home, all in one day, seems to oppress him. He stares morosely at his unfinished plywood floor for a bit.

.... Then his brown eyes light up and he smiles.

.... "When I get back, I'll probably head straight for the furo and take a nice long soak," he says. "When the sky is clear, and the stars are out, you look up, and Oh Man! Oh Man! You know?"


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