CAPE GIRARDEAU — Stages of Lou Varro's long career as an artist have always intertwined with the happenings in his life. Sometimes his art reflected a need of his peers. Other times it was for their entertainment. Seventy years after he began using paint, sculpture, drawing and photography to express his interests, his story is chronicled in the art he has created, which can be viewed through January at the Aartful Rose Gallery.
Varro was born in 1917 in Saskatchewan, Canada, where his family had a rural homestead. His mother died when he was young, leaving Varro and his two older brothers in the care of their father. The family lived in an abandoned Canadian Pacific Railroad car in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, for three years. Life became better for the family after his father remarried. They moved into a house, and over the years the family grew with more children.
Varro took high school-level classes at a Bible college near the family's home. He and his friends would exchange autographs for fun, and Varro would paint a small watercolor scene for his friends along with his name.
"Here is where my art took off, you could say," Varro said. "I became popular for it."
Varro attended art school in Calgary, Alberta, after he graduated from high school. With no car and no money, he walked more than 100 miles to the school, where he met a professor whose landscape painting he greatly admired.
"I saw that, and I told him in five years, I want to be able to do that," Varro said. "But I never did get it down."
Soon after, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served in World War II as a noncommissioned officer. While stationed in southern Italy, he worked as a processor for films that came off bomber planes after they were sent for an attack. Here, he found another opportunity to work as an artist.
"I dabbled in photography, but my specialty then was calendars," Varro said.
Varro would use his spare time in the photography lab — an old barn that had been converted for military use — to make calendars for his fellow servicemen.
"I would find a picture of a pretty girl, make a couple of them and give them away for the guys to put in their planes or their huts," he said. "A lot of guys knew and liked me for that."
After the war, Varro spent time in Washington and then in California, where his military service paid for schooling. He attended a photography school in Santa Barbara, Calif., and tried to make a living. He said his venture wasn't successful.
"I wanted to keep going to school because I was having trouble settling down," he said.
He worked odd jobs and moved to Los Angeles, where he attended art school and took classes in painting. During that time, he worked often on his own and for school with figure painting.
"That's where I really got interested in painting, and I was doing better," he said.
Varro worked as a layout artist in the aerospace industry, got married and had children. He continued his work as an artist, especially with figurative painting and drawing. Over the years the family took many vacations from Los Angeles to visit their families in both Canada and Illinois. When Varro's wife told him she was ready to get back to her roots, they explored the Midwest, finally landing in Cape Girardeau in 1992. Varro's older brother had visited Cape Girardeau and told them about the area.
"The weather was nice, and the people were respectful and kindly," Varro said, "so we decided to give it a go."
After moving to Cape Girardeau, Varro became involved with the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri in the 1990s. He also joined the local artists cooperative.
When he would complete a painting, drawing or photograph, he would make a frame to go with it.
Many of the works he has sold throughout the years were encased in his handmade frames.
"A painting seems to lose half its value without a frame," he said.
Though he has sold many pieces, he has held on to many as well. In his living room he has photographs he took during the war and a sculpture he made during his time at art school in Calgary.
This month, Varro, now 92, has yet another chance to show his lifetime of work as the featured artist at the Aartful Rose Gallery in Cape Girardeau.
Gallery director Erin Schloss and Varro have been friends for several years. She handpicked the 42-piece collection hanging in the gallery.
"I thought it would be neat to do a retrospect of all his work, so I divided it up by decades back to the 1940s through 2008," Schloss said.
She said she doesn't often find an artist with both the talent and longevity Varro has displayed.
"This is to honor him," she said. "He's a spectacular artist and a humble person, and I wanted to remind him that his art is timeless."