1991: Dietrich Varez Emerges from the Art Jungle by Ron Jacobs (from Hawaii Magazine, February 1991)
Was this the road to hell? If so, it certainly wasn't paved with good intentions. This road was paved with nothing -- not cement, not asphalt, not gravel -- nothing. This was the alleged "road" to Big Island artist Dietrich Varez's place.
"To the summit of the mountain... we were nearing the palace of the dreaded goddess Pele, the creator of Kilauea." --Mark Twain
Straight up Highway 11 from Hilo, beyond Keaau and Mountain View, just before the "2500 Feet Altitude" sign is Glenwood. Consisting of a market and a gas pump, it's the first of three left turns drawn on the "Treasure Map" provided by Varez. Kilauea volcano was represented by a hole burned through the parchment paper. Skull and crossbones indicated dead ends. Rusting car skeletons appeared as "automotive accessories" on the diagram.
Dietrich Varez has a grand, if foreboding sense of humor. The homestretch of the so-called road was hard-packed mud, punctuated by limousine-sized potholes. The car's occupants bounced around like pachinko balls on amphetamine. The rental vehicle moved up and down more than straight ahead, the speedometer needle flat on its side. We'd be better served by an altimeter.
The corrugated trail narrowed. Tall foliage, some poisonous, clawed up at the lonely wire dangling between telephone poles. Like a green car wash, damp ferns embraced the car. Only one other person was encountered: a scowling, leathery old man rattling towards civilization in a battered pickup.
Mauna Loa is 13,677 feet, but on the day of our visit, thick fog obscured all views. Just when the expedition was about to be canceled due to fear of death, another auto carcass appeared. It matched the map; we couldn't turn back.
Broadcast from Hilo, golden oldies played on the Ford Tempo radio: Frankie Laine, Rosemary Clooney, Peter, Paul and Mary and so on. Duane Eddy's 1959 "Forty Miles of Bad Road" would have fit better.
Abruptly, a 35-foot wide "ALOHA" painted on the sloping roof of a two-story wooden house, popped into sight. Eureka! The map said we'd reached "Berchtesgaden, Home of the Printfuhrer."
A smiling Dietrich Varez waded out of a large pond, ducks chugging off in his wake. His wife, Linda, barefoot earth mother in a lavender muumuu, waved from the bank.
Still rattled, I slowly opened the car door. A toad squirted away in the mud. Kama, a large black schnauzer arrived, sniffling its curiosity.
The 6-foot, 5-inch Varez was thinner and younger looking than a man of 50 should be. "Come here and check out these Isabella grapes," he yelled, picking some from a thriving green vine. "Vineyard Street on Oahu was named after them. They came from Portugal years ago." Thus began an enthusiastic lecture tour covering horticulture, aquaculture, agriculture and popular culture.
The pond appeared simple enough, but like Varez himself, looks are deceptive. Beneath his Robinson Crusoe exterior lurks a compulsive hyper-organizer, one who possesses a genetic affinity for master building on a grand scale. While Varez told of designing, clearing, grading and making his miniature lake, a question persisted: How does he know these things?
It was the spring of 1939. Germany had occupied Bohemia and Moravia, placed Slovakia under "protection," annexed Memel and renounced agreements with Poland, England, Italy and the USSR. Synagogues and books were set aflame.
The most popular war song in the Deutschland was "Lili Marlene." In Berlin, on March 28, a first child was born to the Donat family who lived next to a canal in the center of the German capital. The father, Friedrich, a Lithuanian architect and engineer, named his son after an actress who frequented his father-in-law's coffee house--Marline Dietrich.
The child's Polish-Swedish mother, Ursulaa, was an English translator. Two years after Dietrich was born, she gave birth to a second son. Defying the godless wave of tyranny breaking over Europe, she christened the boy Christian.
Soon war engulfed the continent and father Donat abandoned his engineering design work on such projects as the rotary engine. He was conscripted by Adolf Hitler--himself a would-be architect--to supervise construction of German airports and bridges. There was no choice. By the end of WW-II, Herr Donat was in hiding, on the run, hunted by the victorious Russians.
Forty-five years later, Dietrich Varez recalls, "My father was forced to oversee deep military construction for the German army." He adds, a bit incredulously, "Somewhere I have the plans for Hitler's bunker."
Ursula Donat, the mother of the two blonde-haired boys, ages 6 and 8, had no desire to see them grow up in the war-ruptured city, their father a fugitive. She divorced her husband in 1947. Later she would meet and marry U.S. Army Sgt. Manuel Varez. He legally adopted the brothers and brought his fledgling family with him, back home to the Territory of Hawaii, 7300 miles away.
The boys moved in with their new grandparents in Oahu's Palolo Valley. "We didn't speak English and our first language was pidgin," remembers Dietrich. "There was a 'beef' (fight) every day. When we moved to Pearl City in 1952, Chris and I were the only haoles in the school."
In spite of the initial culture shock, Dietrich would live the rest of his boyhood in typical island style. The elder Varez remained in the army, while Ursula devoted her time to raising the family. They lived at languid Fort Kamehameha and the boys, now fluent in English, attended Pearl Harbor Intermediate.
In 1957, the family moved to Kailua, on Oahu's windward side, but Dietrich enrolled at Roosevelt High School in town. "My parents wanted college," he recalls, "but I wanted hot rods." Varez kept everyone happy: he attended the University of Hawaii while driving to the Manoa campus in a 1938 Chevy sedan with a Chrysler Fargo truck V-8 engine.
Varez graduated from the UH with a degree in English. While there, he edited Asterick, the school literary magazine, for which her wrote short stories and poetry. "I was Frank Kafka, I was Nathanael West, I always ended up copying some other writer." In 1962, after a stint as a graduate assistant, he joined the Army. A second lieutenant, he served two years at Fort Benning as a training officer.
When discharged, Varez returned to the UH to earn a Masters degree in English. He also went to work at Ala Wai Marine in the yacht harbor. "I did everything from scrape barnacles to run the place," he says. "The nail pounding and hands-on training were more beneficial than what I learned in school, a valuable asset."
That same year, 1964, Dietrich Varez met Linda Denneberg, a San Luis Obispo, California, surfer who ha come to Honolulu to compete in a 1959 Makaha meet and, like so many before, decided to stay and make Hawaii home. She went to work designing black coral jewelry for the then new Maui Divers. She first met Dee at the boatyard next to the bridge at the mouth of the Ala Wai Canal.
Besides German ancestry, Linda discovered they shared many things in common. "Dee loved the water, and he was exploring woodcarving, painting and drawing," she recalls. The two would go on hikes. The trails behind Aiea Heights were a favorite. Here, perhaps, is where Varez began his fascination with the wild feral pigs which roam Oahu's mountains.
"E Pele e! Here is my sacrifice--a pig.
E Pele e! Here is my gift--a pig.
Here is a pig for you,
O goddess of the burning stones.
Life for me. Life for you.
The flowers of fire wave gently.
Here is your pig. Amen."
--W.D. Westervelt, Hawaiian Legends of Volcanoes, 1963; (Translated from Hawaiian).
Dietrich's first block print, carved on linoleum scraps from the boatworks, depicted a pig in a taro patch. By the summer of 1990, Varez estimated that -- based on his paper usage -- he has produced over 200,000 hand carved, pressed and signed block prints!
In 1965, the couple was married and living in a basement on Wilhelmina Rise, above Oahu's Kaimuki district.. They went on a neighbor island vacation, first to Maui, then on to the Big Island, spending their time at the Kilauea National Park staying at the Namakani Cabins. "We thought it was nice, but too expensive to own a place," Linda says.
They returned to Oahu which, even by then, 20 years ago, seemed to them a concrete jungle compared to the Kingdom of Madam Pele. W.D. Westervelt recently had published "Hawaiian Legends of Volcanoes," which began with "The Legend of the Forest Eater:"
"Ai-la'au was the god of the insatiable appetite, the continual eater of trees, whose path was through forests, was covered with black smoke of burning wood and sometimes burdened with the smell of human flesh charred into cinders in the lava flow. When Pele came to the island of Hawaii, she stopped in the Puna district and began her inland journey toward the mountains. She desired to see 'Ai-la'au, but trembling dread and heavy fear over powered him. He ran away and was entirely lost. When Pele arrived, she planned her home, she dug her foundations day and night.
Therefore, she fastened herself tight to Hawaii for all time."
?Indulging their fantasies, the newlyweds searched the real estate section in the Sunday papers for land in the Puna volcano district. Linda gave birth to Dietrich Jr., their only child. In the fall of 1968, they spotted ad ad: "Big Island, Volcano, 9 acres, fee simple, $3900."?
"We had exactly $3900 to our name," Varez recalls. "So we bought the land sight unseen. We knew there would be ohia trees and lehua flowers up there."
(Ohia-lehua is the native name for a tree which abounds in Puna, the volcanic home of Pele. It has continuous growth of delicately pink shaded leaves and flowers like beautiful red-fringed balls. Ohia forests grow rapidly on recent lava flows, bringing life to the desolation.)
As Steve Spence wrote in a 1979 Honolulu Star-Bulletin story -- the only significant publicity Varez has received to date -- "He filed his former life on Oahu in the forget-it file." Varez says, "I was a little worried ... culture shock, scary ... but not really. We knew that we owned nine acres. Somewhere."
For several years, Dietrich, Linda and their son lived in cabins in the Hawaii National Park, vaguely five miles from their land. In his spare time, Varez built a 10 x 12-foot platform on a shelf of lava and erected a platoon tent on it. The tiny area became the Varez family cabin-studio for a decade. But they were living on their own land, in the domain of Madame Pele.
Dietrich became a "weed puller" at the Volcano Golf and Country Club, then a self-taught bartender at the legendary Volcano House lodge, overlooking the firepit of Halemaumau. His first "professional" art consisted of ohia firewood scraps carved into Pele heads. Varez stood them on the bar and sold the figures for $20 each. "Back then the carvings made the bucks, the prints were just gifts for friends." he says.
By 1969, more people were buying Varez's distinctive block prints depicting Hawaiian life, lore and legend. In a marketing plan which could have been concocted by Ray Kroc and Andy Warhol, Varez put his prints on sale at the hotel's gift shop. For $4 each! "Busloads came through, 800 a day for the dinner buffet," recalls the artist. "Linda Bird Johnson and all the Secret Service came by. They bought a handful." It took 10 years before Varez was confident that the print proceeds would meet his Spartan budget.
Varez's first prints were executed in black ink. He soon felt that black was "too harsh," and switched to the earthy brown which has become his trademark. "Brown is mellower, more Hawaiian, the color of soil," he explains.
In 1974, the nonprofit Volcano Art Center opened in the refurbished 97-year old original Volcano House building. Noted Big Island photographer Boone Morrison became the center's first director. Of Varez, Morrison has said: "He turns to the Hawaii of old for his inspiration, to the time when spirits inhabited every tree and stone and the gods walked the earth. He boldly traces the adventures and passions of this cast of characters in a style ever reflecting the dynamicism of Hawaii. Dietrich Varez is truly an artist of and for the people."
Says Varez: "I make art for Joe Six-Pack, Ma and Pa Kettle, not for people with degrees. The art world dislikes my $5 to $12-$15 prices. A pop artist is overlooked, like an eraser on the end of a pencil. With so many people buying popular art, is the difference between a popular artist and a fine artist measured only in dollars? Art should be blue jeans. At these prices I can earn a living and w can get along just fine. They get the prints and I get the strokes and everyone's happy -- a mutual admiration society."
Of Varez, the Art Center Gallery's present manager, Audrey Forcier, says emphatically, "Dietrich has done more than any other artist to share his knowledge and aloha of Hawaii with the most people."
"Tell the story of Boone Morrison's trip to Lahaina, Amigo," urges Linda. (The pair address each other as "Amigo.") Dietrich guffaws. "Boone went into a Lahaina art gallery. There was my 'Opihi Picker' print in a fancy koa frame. The price was $150! Boone asked, 'Who is this Varez?' The art gallery dude told him, "Oh, he's an old Hawaiian man on his deathbed. We're the only ones who can get to him." Varez shakes his head at the irony. "Boone had the same print at the Art Center for $15."
Typically dodging convention, Varez has always eschewed the traditional block destruction practiced by printmakers to assure buyers that their print is one of a limited edition. "Why break the blocks?" he asks. "I like my blocks. The nature of prints is multiple impression." He then launches into an impassioned description of the Japanese art of Ukiyo-E (The Floating World). "Japanese artists sold prints for pennies in the street, like newspapers, a means of communication," Varez enthuses.
The artist also uses his own homegrown dating system. In the introduction to the 1979 limited edition Dietrich Varez, Prints of Hawaii, editor Carol Adams wrote: "Varez dates the print when he pulls it from the block rather than when the block was carved. Thus, a 'Canoemaker' print can have a 1979 on it although the block was made in 1969."
Varez explained: "The printmaking business needs some new blood and new traditions. After all, the customer doesn't buy the block--he buys the print. Doing it the traditional way would be like a painter dating his painting with the year he acquired his paint brush. The block is a tool. The print is the thing, the final result of the creative process."
In 1975, Varez's father, whom he had not seen since the 1940's, died in Germany. He left his sons a small inheritance. Dietrich's brother bought a fishing boat. Dee built a house with, typically, function dictating design. "I'm not a carpenter, I just throw wood together," says Varez, who built the entire two-story house himself. ("It was pretty easy compared to varnishing a mast from the top down.")
Downstairs consists of three areas: kitchen, bedroom and Dietrich Jr.'s old room. Concessions to civilization include two small solar panels (one for a 9-inch black and white television, the other to start a generator), a tiny refrigerator, a portable radio, a propane tank and a telephone -- installed six months ago. There is absolutely nothing superfluous in sight. Everything, after all, must be hauled in on that infernal road. The motto is "If you can't get it in Hilo -- you don't need it!"
The entire second story is the studio. Large oil paintings, mostly Linda's, line the walls. (Interestingly, when they go on display at the Volcano Art Center, Linda's works will be priced higher than Dietrich's with her top price $4000, his $3200. She was an artist in residence at the Center when it opened.)
"It rains here so much, it should be measured in feet," jokes Dietrich as a shower arrives. "Actually, it's about 250 to 300 inches a year," Linda adds. This area was once known as Kapu'euhi by the Hawaiians, which means 'the yam mound.' If there was no food in Hilo, they could come up here."
"We're eight miles from the Pu'u O'o vent. From our lanai we can see the eruptions. They jam up TV reception. And sometimes the earthquakes make the roof leak," Dietrich says.
Varez has been to Oahu only once since moving to the Big Island. "And I've never been to Kona, "he says cheerfully. "Linda has never been off the island since we arrived." In 1979, Varez told the Star-Bulletin: "I would get all embarrassed at an artist's reception, standing there shaking hands like an idiot. I just couldn't handle that. And besides, my face turns bright red."
For the past year, Varez's passion has been his new creation: Poverty Prints. Smaller, cheaper, exquisitely detailed, Varez designed these prints so that anyone can afford an original, hand-printed, signed work of art for $5.
Dietrich: "We pride ourselves in remaining outside the establishment. We come in the back door. They think we're all wrong."
Linda: "We take subject matter the art world doesn't want: Hawaiiana. The Poverty Print concept came from galleries saying, 'Put them on fancy paper, number them, break the blocks, get $100 each.'"
Varez has become a prolific book illustrator in the past few years. His work decorates The Water of Life--A Jungian Journey Through Hawaiian Myth, Hawaiian-Japanese Dictionary (Nishizawa), Maui the Demigod, by Steven Goldsberry, Kamapua'a, by John Charlot and Proverbs, by Mary Kawena Pukui. The next book project will feature illustrations and text by Varez himself; it will be a children's volume of Pele legends published by the Bishop Museum Press.
Seated on the floor of his studio next to the tools of his trade--two orange-handled carving knives, a roll of industrial gray linoleum and a table the size of a chessboard -- Dietrich Varez reflects on his life: his escape from the Brownshirts of Nazi Germany to the brown soil of his homestead to his bold icons rendered in brown ink.
"The first environment was Hawaiian," he says. "I see Hawaii as a one-of-a-kind resource for artists. Mythology, rare plants, animals, birds -- there's no end to the artistic inspiration. The other day I was reading about La'ieikawai, who lived in a house made of yellow feathers. What an inspiration! These things must be transferred from oral hand-me-downs to permanent visualizations. This is a good time for keeping Hawaiian things alive, I believe, making them accessible."
It's like 'jumping media.' These legends have been make (dead) a long time, entrusted in the oral tradition. And my prints are made by me, myself. Nowadays, someone else usually carves and prints for the artist."
Varez has won no awards, received neither study grants nor state purchases. He says flatly, "I am not acknowledged as an artist." In The New Spirit, Havelock Ellis wrote, "Every artist writes his own autobiography." And to that extent, the story of Dietrich Varez is told in the prints hanging on the walls of homes and offices, condos and institutions from Kahala to Karachi. His prints are best-sellers in the Honolulu Academy of Arts gift shop.
"Pele's story is that of wanderlust," legend has it, "she was stirred by thoughts of far-away lands." Today, Dietrich Varez says, "I'm kind of like an adopted child to the Hawaiian -- my culture is shredded. I don't care if people put the prints up with four tacks in the corners, just as long as they are up!"