Keeping a Lost Art Alive
Art professor’s new work seeks to explore and document America’s disappearing horse culture …with a twist
To a casual observer, Art Professor Star Varner’s latest works may just look like an abstract combination of lines, dots and dashes.
The prints have a much deeper meaning, however. And what is particularly interesting is how she created them.
In addition to being an artist whose work has been in more than 100 exhibitions, Varner is one of only a handful of professional trick ropers left in the world. Now, for the first time, she is – cautiously – using her ropes to create artwork.
And the results are getting attention. Her newest works were selected to travel in the United States and abroad as part of “Engraving 2009,” and will be part of the Southern Graphics Council International juried members’ exhibition slated to travel in the United States for three years before traveling internationally for two. In February, she was invited to present her new work at the annual meeting of the College Art Association as part of a panel title “PROOF: Printmaking as Evidence.”
Varner grew up in a rodeo family. Her parents were rodeo producers and entertainers and her mother was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame for her contributions to women’s rodeo.
From a very young age, Varner and her two siblings participated in the rodeos their parents produced. Varner started learning the art of trick roping at age five and she and her siblings did an act known as the “Roping Rodeo Rascals.”
Inspired by her grandfather, who was an architect, and a man who painted rodeo signs for her parents, who was a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Varner decided to pursue a career in art. She earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in art from the University of Missouri and an MFA in printmaking from Indiana University. She currently serves as chair of the Art Department at Southwestern.
Varner said she left the rodeo culture as a teenager by immersing herself in art studies and had no intent of returning. But 40 years later, she has returned to her unusual background on her own terms and from an entirely new perspective as an artist.
“Having been part of the world of American rodeos from childhood through early adulthood, I realized in retrospect that I lived that life at the end of an era of the romanticized American west as popularized by Hollywood,” she said. “I hope to document it through these prints as I explore what makes the cowboy/cowgirl image so enduring in the imaginations of cultures worldwide.”
Varner’s latest prints were made by coating one of her ropes with charcoal and spinning it over seven-inch square copper plates laid in a circle on the floor. After the plates were coated with the charcoal residue, Varner sprayed them with a fixative, then gouged out the pattern on the metal – a slow process of engraving that she said is the most difficult technique that she has ever done.
Varner is using these plates to make prints in a variety of combinations. For example, she can print two different plates over one another in different combinations. She calculated that with the 10 different square plates she has, a total of 6,400 combinations are possible if the translucent prints are overlaid facing different directions. The precision of mathematical algorithms are part of the series of prints.
The resulting prints appear to be abstract, but Varner said they are closer to “reality” than even her figure drawings and paintings, because they are translated from a direct recording of the act of roping. She believes most images related to the American west are riddled with clichés, which as an artist she is trying to avoid.
Varner calls one collection of prints she made from her plates “Centripetal Forces,” which she said refers to the physics of a spinning rope with force being pulled toward a center. She uses centripetal force as a metaphor for the many ways that families draw us back in to a family center and how American culture is stereotyped with a cowboy culture at its center that it can’t escape. From a sociological perspective, she is interested in the ways that cultures construct national identity.
The prints in her “Crossed Paths” series are made by printing two plates over one another and according to Varner, the idea of crossing paths has many metaphorical possibilities. The print titled “Crossed Paths: Arrangement #2” will be traveling across the United States and internationally beginning in March 2012.
Varner went to Crown Point Press in San Francisco in the summer of 2011 to perfect the method of printing she uses to make prints from her plates. It is a printmaking technique known as intaglio that dates back to the Renaissance.
Intaglio printing is also a slow process that can take as long as three hours to produce three prints. Varner has set up a special studio to do her printmaking on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building. First, she forces a thick ink into the lines on the copper plates. Then she wipes the ink off with several different types of cloth until there is only a little left on the plates. Varner hand-cuts pieces of paper to fit on top of the plates and then runs them through a hand-turned printing press that, through pressure, transfers the ink from the recesses of the plates to the paper. Varner makes her prints on a transparent Japanese paper that allows the images to show through. At the same time the ink is being transferred to paper, the prints are also glued onto a heavier backing paper and then left for two days to dry.
Another current project of Varner’s combines her interest in trick roping with her 2010 trip to China. When she accompanied her husband, Kenny Sheppard, and the Southwestern University Chorale to China, she took her ropes along with her. She also had her family brand inscribed in her boot heel so that she would be making invisible brands everywhere she walked as a direct reference to the way in which U.S. corporations such as McDonalds and KFC have “branded” China. She also made rubbings on paper of the pavement wherever she saw evidence of Americanization, which she is using in her prints.
Recently, Varner took one of her ropes to her brother’s ranch in College Station and had a horse press down on it to make an impression in an 80-inch square piece of paper. The paper with the impression in it will serve as the base for a three-dimensional piece of artwork that will also include rubbings she took of the pavement at Tiananmen Square. Varner plans to use the circular rope as a symbol for the lure of American democracy and stack two piles of rubbings inside the circle created by the rope – one with a rubbing for each person Chinese officials estimated was killed at Tiananmen Square and another with a rubbing for each person the Chinese Red Cross estimated (and, reportedly, later retracted under intense pressure) was killed at Tiananmen Square during the 1989 uprising.
“I want to see – visibly – what the difference between 241 and 2600 is,” she said.