For someone who has never had an art lesson in her life, Nikiski painter and carver Janet Varvais certainly knows what she's doing.
She does oil paintings, carves wood and paints ceramics, rocks and gold pans, all without any sort of instruction.
"I've never had a lesson or anything," she said. "I just feel it and do it."
In 1999 Varvais' niece convinced her to enter the Kenai Peninsula State Fair for the first time. She entered homemade jam, canned peaches, a staff she had carved animal figures into, an oil painting and a rock she had painted. All took first place in every division and she took grand champion honors in the art division. She repeated her impressive results in the 2000 and 2001 fairs.
She has also entered her paintings in the Kenai Peninsula Art Guild's annual juried art show and has designed winning floats for the Kenai Fourth of July Parade. Her paintings have been sold in Europe, South America, Mexico and all across the U.S.
Despite her success with art, it is definitely a hobby to Varvais, rather than a career or something she does for money.
"I'm flattered when someone wants (a painting), so I sell them for very little more than the cost," she said. "As long as I can replenish my supplies and keep painting that's all I care about."
Artwork gives Varvais something fun and useful to do to occupy her time. She estimated that she spends three to five hours a day painting or carving, not counting the time she spends in the ceramics shop at the Nikiski Senior Center.
"I'm 71," she said. "It keeps you going. It's better than just sitting around and looking at TV. When you get to be our age, just sitting would be horrible."
Varvais has always had a flair for the artistic, but didn't pursue art for most of her life. When she was in high school she won a national scholastic award for a photograph she took. Then about 30 years ago, she decided to try oil painting.
"I picked up a paint brush and started painting," she said. "It probably just felt like something I wanted to try, and I did. Your family says 'oh that's lovely,' so you try another one. And every time you do it you get better."
"Sugar and Spice," oil painting portrait by Janet Varvais. "She's just so smart but, boy, you can see the dickens in her," Varvais said aboutt he subject, who is the granddaughter of a friend of Varvais'.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Without any help or direction, Varvais taught herself how to paint by trial and error, although she wouldn't recommend that method to others.
"If there's a class available I think it's good to go to a class so you have a better understanding of what your tools will do," she said. "I'm just hit and miss with mine. And at my age, I think that I'll just keep going like I am."
Last year Varvais became the activity director of the Nikiski Senior Center through a grant the center got to train seniors for employment. The position gave Varvais an opportunity to expand her artistic endeavors, as well as become involved in the community. She started painting rocks, gold pans and ceramics through her work at the center. She organizes all the activities the center holds, including art events, which gives her a chance to share her talents with others.
"People say 'give it to Janet,' she's got a feel for it,'" she said. "Those things just come easy for me."
Despite attempts to get her to teach a painting class at the center, Varvais doesn't feel she could demonstrate or explain what she does, since she's never learned the "proper" techniques herself.
"I just do it," she said. "I don't know that what I do is right, so I can't instruct anybody."
But she has done several paintings for people at the center. She's done portraits of friends' grandchildren and even painted a picture of a dead pet.
"A man said 'I hear you do portraits,'" she said. "I said, 'I don't.' But his dog had just died and his wife was crying, so I did a painting of the dog."
Varvais doesn't usually take requests for what she paints, but she has done portraits on request and she's done pictures of her eight grandchildren.
"Something will catch my eye and I think I want to do it, whether it's flowers or landscapes or portraits."
Varvais moved to Alaska from California in 1993 after taking a trip to Nikiski to visit her niece and falling in love with the land and the lifestyle.
"I Light the Way," oil painting by Janet Varvais.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Once she moved here, Alaska themes found their way into many of her paintings. She's done pictures of the northern lights, snowscapes, caribou and other such scenes.
"I love Alaska," she said. "It truly is the last frontier and artistically I appreciate that."
The grant for Varvais' employment at the Nikiski Senior Center will run out in June. She plans to spend the rest of the summer camping with friends, then she will visit her daughter in Indiana and her son in California.
After that she will back in Nikiski volunteering her time at the senior center and continuing to pursue her love of art.
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