Artist Bart Vargas spends his time gathering the unwanted, discarded ‘trash’ of other peoples’ existence. He transforms things like bottles, keyboards, old toys, wood chips and old paint tins into new forms that make us consider waste in a whole new way. We caught up with Bart for some insight into his creative life.
How long have you been a practicing artist? Where did it all start?
My biological Mom said that I was drawing as soon as I could hold something in my hand. But coming from two working class/military families, I didn’t see any potential getting a job as an “artist”. So I joined the Air Force, served for six years. I worked factory and warehouse jobs, running machinery and operating heavy equipment for a few years.
Then after getting laid off for the second time, I decided to go to college ten years after everyone else I knew did. All I was really good at was drawing, so I majored in art. I went to school during the day, and was a janitor on campus at night.
I was poor, and college and life had plenty of expenses, so I started making art out of trash and began to gain a reputation for that. While in grad school, a sculpture of mine was asked to represent the United States of America in the 2010 Beijing International Art Biennial. Another series of sculptures received the ‘Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture’ award from the International Sculpture Center.
I’ve been making, teaching, and exhibiting my art across the world ever since.
What are your favorite materials to work with?
Each and everyone of them has something different to offer, but I think one commonality that runs through the majority of materials I use is that they were something someone else didn’t want or need anymore.
That aspect runs through all my works whether they be sculptures or paintings. I recover local materials deemed unwanted or useless, including trash, recyclables and surplus items and then transform them into playful, approachable and thought-provoking objects. I want my creations to act as artifacts and evidence of the early 21st century, an era of limited resources and extraordinary consumption and waste.
Is there an overarching feeling or message you hope to give your audience?
That is a hard question. It’s hard to see one overarching theme or message, but if I could hope the work communicates one, it would be a sense of possibility. I’ve made a life out of making art out of trash, and I’ve gone from jumping in dumpsters twenty years ago to representing my country across the world several times now, and I’m still jumping in dumpsters.
I want the works to have a positive message overall, that you can make something from nothing. Whether it is your art, or your life.
What has been your most significant moment as an artist?
There are many significant moments in a person’s life, but if I had to compartmentalize this answer to just my life as an artist, I would have to say the most significant moment was representing my country through my art.
When I was in grad school, I was poor, I was living with three other roommates in a house we were renting together, and I was jumping in dumpsters to gather materials to make art with. That was when I was first asked to represent the USA in the People’s Republic of China. I couldn’t afford to do it, but I jacked up my credit card and went anyway.
Since then I have represented the USA through my art in Greece, India, Mexico, and South Korea. I was even hired to build a sculpture for a new museum in Azerbaijan and was honored to shake the first daughter’s hand in the museum’s opening ceremony.
I am still financially poor, still jumping in dumpsters to make my art, but it has given me an incredibly rich life!
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
When I was in undergrad, Sandy Winters was a visiting printmaker at my university. In her lecture to the campus she told students that if they had an idea to explore in their art, to make it 30 times. She told us that we would never fully realize the full potential of our ideas if we only made them once and moved on to the next thing.
I know I’m paraphrasing what she said all those years ago, but what she said hit home, and I have been making multiples of every idea I’ve had ever since.
What has been the greatest lesson you have learned?
I would say that the greatest lesson was learning that failure is your friend. Every art object and image we create involves a thousand decisions that ultimately lead to their success or failure as an art object. I have experimented, reached farther than I could support an idea or technique, I have failed, I have received rejection after rejection, but each time I took from each experience what I could, and learned from it.
All those lessons have contributed to all the successes I have ever had.
See more of Bart’s work at bart-vargas.squarespace.com