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Varnell’s 1st solo show on display at Main Street
Artist Donald Varnell’s series, titled “Southeasterly Wind.” Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

The inspiration for the title of Donald Varnell’s first solo exhibit has deep roots. When he was young, Varnell would visit his great-grandmother, Selina Peratrovich, and what he saw scattered on her floors has stuck with him ever since.

Varnell would go into the woods, take bark off of trees and pull the outer layer off, before going inside his great-grandmother's house and splitting the bark in half —  and splitting it again.

“The linoleum floors would be just stained with the pigment of these 600-year-old trees, 700-year-old trees, 200-year-old trees,” Varnell said. “Our fingers would be stained, our lips would be stained.”

Varnell explained that the pigment would drip from the bark and onto the floor, and the pigment in the juice is as old as the tree that it was stripped from.

After years of “neglecting” to thank Peratrovich for that imagery, he’s found a way to somewhat do that. Varnell has named his exhibit, “Juices: All of our Stains…” which will be on display at the Main Street Gallery until April 27.

The ideas for the sculptures, paintings and drawings in the exhibit come from his three-month residency with the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the first Alaskan and one of 25 artists awarded the $25,000 Painters and Sculptors grant in 2014.

Officials with the Joan Mitchell Foundation told him to go down to New Orleans and experiment, and experiment he did. He said the experience was an avenue for him to let loose and see some his conceptualized ideas come to fruition.

“Oh my God, New Orleans altered me,” he laughed, adding that he didn’t purposely go around looking to be influenced by the community. “What I was influenced by were the other residents. I would go from room to room like I did in college, just communicating with the other artists.”

Like those other residents he worked with, Varnell said much of his artistic influences are the people around him. That might include the artists, friends and colleagues that surround him in Ketchikan, such as Nathan Jackson and Ray Troll.

Troll, known for his paintings and mixed media artwork, has been a friend of Varnell’s for about 25 years and has worked with him on a few projects.

They have worked on two large-scale works together: A 9-by-10 foot carved and painted wooden panel, which is on display at Schoenbar Middle School; and a carved and painted wooden settee, which is currently part of a traveling exhibit throughout the state and country.

Troll has seen parts of Varnell’s “Juices” exhibit, and said, like everything Varnell does, it has an edge to it, and it’s an “exciting body of work.” Troll added he can’t believe it’s his first solo exhibit, because “he’s already done so much” in the community.

“I think he’s pushing boundaries even further with this batch of drawings, paintings and sculptures,” Troll said in an email to the Daily News. “Some of it’s quite challenging, but that’s what I love about his work.”

The artist said he’s heard Varnell’s work described as “the psychedelic Haida.” Although Troll isn’t quite sure that phrase fits, he said it’s a fun descriptor. Varnell is a Haida carver and proficient cedar bark weaver — having studied under Haida master weavers Holly Churchill, his aunt; and Delores Churchill, his grandmother.

Along with being a carver and weaver, Varnell said he’s a sculptor, painter, carpenter and fisherman. He takes many approaches to his work, but it all comes back to his roots in Northwest Coast traditions.

“I’ve never pigeonholed myself into anything,” Varnell noted. “Usually when someone tries to do that to me, I scoot off to the side of the wall before I get in that corner.”

Troll said Varnell’s work is “modern,” yet still grounded in those traditional roots. Jackson, who worked with Varnell in the earlier stages of his career and was his mentor, said Varnell’s work is contemporary, “like Picasso.”

“Just kind of doing what he wants to do, not what somebody else wants him to do,” Jackson said. “That’s the only way I could be able to explain that. He’s a very good artist.”

Although Jackson, a Tlingit master carver, hasn’t seen pieces from Varnell’s exhibit yet, he said his work is very expressive and has its own flare — and his creations are a one time deal. Jackson said Varnell doesn’t push out artwork just to do it.

“I think one of the things that happens with some of Donnie’s work is it becomes eye-catching, Jackson added. “It’s a little bit different, and in some aspects of being very unusual, yet being Northwest Coast.”

Troll and Jackson are not the only people that have praised Varnell’s combination of traditional and modern artwork. Asia Freeman is the artistic director at the Burnell Street Arts Center in Homer, and said she’s admired his work for many years.

Her first time working with Varnell was through the traveling “Decolonizing Alaska” exhibit that was in Ketchikan at the end of last year. Freeman said Varnell’s artistic voice is a fresh one, and she’s seen nothing like it of the same quality, persistence and craftsmanship in Alaska.

“The Anchorage Museum has work of his which I found just arresting for its combination of innovation; together with respect, kind of homage, to culture and history — but really insisting on his own personal interpretation and experience,” Freeman said.

How does culture survive? What does it mean for culture to survive? Those are questions that Freeman thinks Varnell is putting forward “energetically and bravely” in his art.  

While the community is visiting and taking in a portion of that art in “Juices,” Varnell encourages them to see what they want to see. He said everyone has their own perspectives in life, and he’s not going to try to be a dictator or navigator of someone’s point of view on what his work means.

But, if someone were to ask him what he was looking for when creating the pieces in his first — but definitely not last — solo exhibit, he just might have an answer.

“I would say failure,” Varnell wrote to the Daily News. “You learn more.”