Dietrich Varez is one of the best-known artists on the Big Island, famous for his vibrantly colored, uniquely stylized paintings, block prints and book illustrations that often celebrate ancient Hawaiian myths and legends. He’s been especially fond of the legends of the Volcano Goddess Pele, and has portrayed her numerous times in his works—which makes it no surprise that he’s involved with two new book projects involving the goddess—though it may come as a surprise that one is a coloring book.
First the more conventional project: Petroglyph Press is re-releasing Hawaiian Legends of Volcanoes by William D. Westervelt—and this version of the century-old classic has been lavishly illustrated by Varez.
“They used all of my oil painting illustrations, and all of my block printing illustrations that relate to the goddess and the volcano here,” Varez says.
But it’s the other project that may raise eyebrows. Pele the Volcano Goddess is an adult coloring book in which Varez retells 24 legends of Madame Pele and illustrates each with an intricate black-and-white block print, leaving all the space between the lines for the readers to fill. Coloring books for adults have become a popular fad in the past couple of years—they’re even available on magazine racks at Long’s—but Pele the Volcano Goddess is uniquely Hawaiian, both in its content and in Varez’ unique style.
“I’d heard some time last year that they were becoming very popular, even among adults,” he recounts. “I thought, this might be a good thing to try. I’ve been entranced and enchanted by Madame Pele and I thought this would be just the right subject for a coloring book….”
Varez already had the perfect technique for creating such a book. He’s been working for decades with complex block prints whose templates are carefully hand-carved out of linoleum. Linoleum is probably best known for its use in 1950s and ’60s’ vintage flooring. It’s not easy to get these days—Varez has to get it from a factory in his native Germany—but it allows him to carve his master plates with incredible precision, creating lines so thin they could have been drawn with a fine-point pen. “I can get all the detailing out of it that I want.”
Each illustration page contains scores of such lines, creating the picture’s intricate outline. This isn’t a coloring book you can do with Crayolas; it requires fine markers, or pencils, a good eye, and patience.
Varez was born in Germany in the midst of World War II. His father did not survive the war. His mother met and married an American GI during the occupation of Germany, and she and Dietrich went with him to Hawai‘i after the his tour of duty ended.
“I went from Hell to Heaven,” he says. “Hawai‘i is my salvation, and I’m trying to pay it back for all it’s given me and still is giving yet.”
In 1968, he moved to Volcano, built a cabin there, and began tending bar at Volcano House. “I would make wood carvings of Pele and stand them on the bar as I worked there. The carvings, cut from firewood, sold well enough to encourage his career as an artist. But a big breakthrough happened when he rolled one of those carvings in ink, pressed it against paper and made his first print. He took some prints across the street from Volcano House to Volcano Art Center. They sold, and he was encouraged to make and sell more.
He’d always been fascinated with the legends of Pele, and they proved rich subjects for his art. Some of his favorites are the ones about the relationships of Pele with the island’s plants, such as the ‘ohelo berry, which is one of her favorite offerings. “You’re not supposed to eat ‘ohelo berries until you first toss a few over your shoulder or in the direction of the crater for Madame Pele,” Varez notes.
The coloring book contains several other stories of Pele and various native plants, such as how Pele dispersed the hala tree throughout the islands in a fit of rage and how she separated two lovers by turning them into mountain and lowland naupaka bushes. There are also tales of the many lovers of Pele, such as the handsome Kaua‘i chief Lohi‘au, and of her rivalries with her sister Hi‘iaka and the snow goddess Poli‘ahu. There are morality tales such as what happened to the stingy girl who would not give some of her ‘ulu (breadfruit) to Pele. There are even sport stories (Pele was fond of holua sledding (sledding down a stone ramp on land and, ironically, surfing, which she often did with her brother, the shark god Kamohoali‘i.
“The intent of this coloring book is to introduce and inspire you with the leading tales and variety of characters in the Pele mythology…,” writes Varez, in his introduction. Because his stories and artwork are carefully researched and respectful—and because he shares them freely with members of the Hawaiian community, he’s kept good relationships with them: “In all the time I’ve been here Hawaiians have never objected to them,” he maintains.
That same generosity he admits, has caused some friction with the “art world.” Varez refuses to issue limited editions of his works or to destroy his master plates after a certain number of copies, as many artists do to maintain their value. Like the Pele coloring book, his prints are priced to sell to everyone.
“There are three things that go into a work of art. One is the materials, another is time, and the third is the vanity that you invested in it, he says. “I’ve thrown out the vanity.”
Published in Volcano by The Magic Mo, Pele the Volcano Goddess is available at the Hawai‘i Pacific Parks stores inside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Basically Books, The Harbor Gallery in Kamuela, Book Ends in Kailua, Kona Stories in Kona and Koke‘e Museum on Kaua’i.
This lovely book is also available for online orders at www.DVarez.com