Edmonds sculptor takes honors in Olympia’s ‘Peoples’ Prize’ competition


Edmonds sculptor David Varnau’s Joie de Vivre (Joy of Life), a life-size bronze conveying unbridled, innocent childhood joy, has been chosen from a field of 15 works to be purchased by the City of Olympia and put on permanent display as part of the city’s public art collection.

While public art is customarily chosen by arts boards and commissions, Olympia’s Peoples’ Prize is different. The winner is chosen by public balloting.

Each year a call goes out to local and regional artists to submit works on one-year loan. The top 15 are selected in a juried competition and put on public display on a series of plinths along the 0.9-mile Percival Landing boardwalk.

For the next year, members of the community have the opportunity to view, interact with and experience each work, and most importantly to vote for the one they would like the City of Olympia to purchase and add to the city’s permanent public art collection. Balloting concluded earlier this summer, and last month the Olympia Arts Commission reviewed the results and recommended that the city purchase of Varnau’s Joie de Vivre.

In their report, the commission summarized the public comments, praising “the sense of joy, freedom and carefree childhood conveyed in the sculpture,” also noting that a number of ballots recommended permanent placement of Joie de Vivre at the Heritage Park Fountain. (The Heritage Park Fountain is a mecca for children of all ages, where a circular array of water jets entice them to run, play and experience the pure joy conveyed by Varnau’s sculpture.)

Varnau’s 4-year-old grand-daughter Abigail was the model for this work.

My Edmonds News caught up with Varnau in his Edmonds studio last week to talk about winning the Peoples’ Prize, his art, and how he sees the role of public art in the community.

“There are real advantages to programs like this one in Olympia where the public participates directly in the selection of art,” he observed. “In my view the whole point of public art is to entice the viewer, captivate interest, and most of all offer a memorable experience. This process taps into that by giving the viewer the chance to say ‘this work speaks to me in a special way.'”

David Varnau has been sculpting for the past 20 years, but he didn’t start out as an artist.

“I majored in psychology as an undergraduate,” he said. “After graduation I worked in the field for a couple of years, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I’m the kind of person who needs to actually see what I’ve done and know it has a purpose. Then one day I saw an amputee walk across the room on prosthetic legs, and the light went on for me. This is something I can provide!”

This led Varnau to go back to college at UCLA to study and train in prosthetics. “I worked for a decade in the LA area, loving every minute of it,” he said. “But after 10 years it was time to start my own prosthetics practice. I moved with my family to the Pacific Northwest and ultimately settled in Edmonds.”

As his children grew and the responsibilities of parenthood lessened, he found that he had some extra time on his hands and saw this as an opportunity to “enrich my life.” But how?

The answer came at the Edmonds Arts Festival, when he and his wife happened by the Sculptors’ Workshop in the Frances Anderson Center. “I saw an artist working on a bust. He challenged me to try it, and almost immediately I found it irresistible. It just took hold of me. One thing led to another, and before long sculpture was taking up all of my free time and more.”

Last year Varnau made the decision to retire, sold his prosthetics practice, and since then has been devoting his full time to art.

“I’m usually working on several pieces simultaneously,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll get frustrated and a work will sit on the shelf unfinished for months, and then an inspiration comes, I pull it down and go back to work.

“Visual art is like a good novel,” he explains. “It will draw you in with subplots, surprises, and alternative interpretations. Like great literature that takes on more depth with multiple readings, you may see a work of art once, come back several months later, and see something you didn’t discover before. Sometimes this can be as simple as viewing the piece from a different perspective. My goal is to have each work I create be interesting from all viewing angles. It’s particularly satisfying for me to succeed in captivating your interest from all sides of the piece.

“But it’s more than just form. In my sculptures I always look for a story. What is the subject thinking? Is he or she angry, happy, joyful, sad? Some seem lyrical and light- hearted, some are grief-stricken and still others are uplifting, even stirring. But all speak to the human condition and the spectrum of our experience through the compelling beauty and the singular expressiveness of the human body.”

Varnau is particularly inspired by the human body. No doubt in part due to the many years he devoted to making prosthetics, he is especially intrigued by the variations in the form of feet, toes and calf muscles. “We’re hard-wired to appreciate the contours of the human body,” he says. “We each have an internal bank of visual images that we find satisfying, intriguing and inspiring. Sculpture can celebrate that.”

A long-time Edmonds resident, Varnau is committed to giving back to and enriching his community. Part of this commitment includes providing opportunities for both aspiring and experienced artists to join him in his studio for weekly sessions with a live model, where artists can come together in a creative, supportive environment. He stresses that “all are welcome to participate, regardless of skill level. It’s a safe place to give free reign to your inspirations.”

In addition to a casting of the award-winning Joie de Vivre currently featured at Edmonds’ Cole Gallery, David Varnau has several works on public display in downtown Edmonds including Apres de Bain (After the Bath) and Transfixed in the Cafe Louvre courtyard and Ananda in front of the Washington Federal Bank at Third and Main Streeet

Varnau’s studio is a regular stop on the annual Edmonds Art Studio Tour coming up the weekend of Sept. 17 and 18.

Learn more about David Varnau at his website.

— Story and photos by Larry Vogel

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