What makes someone an artist? To me, an artist is someone who thinks creatively and is skilled in a particular medium such as music, painting, glass blowing, film making, photography, etc. Evergreen local, Bill Varner, is his own type of artist. Varner blends his love for photography with an intentional layering process to create a new form of artwork called Conceptual Photography. After doing a little of my own research, I was ready to learn more.
It’s the day after a summer hailstorm and every loose branch, pinecone and wilted flower litter the rugged walk path to Bill’s deck. Thirty-year residents of Evergreen and every bit still in love with this mountain town, Bill and his wife, Kelli, kindly welcome me to their cozy home near downtown Evergreen. The smell of fresh earth and pine is intoxicating as I take a seat on the deck and admire the raw beauty that surrounds me.
Bill wears a bright pink buttoned down shirt which complements his radiant smile and Kelli, an artist herself, sits with us in solid support of her husband. Like any couple who has been together for over 30 years, they finish each other’s sentences and look to one another for memory recall. I find it endearing and can tell they’ve worked as a team for many years.
I take a sip of my coffee before I dive into better understanding what makes Bill Varner tick and how this engineer-turned-businessman-turned-realtor added artist to his title.
Did you notice your creativity growing up?
Oh, big time. I came from an engineering family. My dad is a real rocket scientist—his name is on a plaque on Mars right now. And I grew up with this type of stuff. We engineered everything. He’s an idea man. And that’s what I am. So basically, as a kid, my dad and I were making everything using a lathe and a mill in our basement.
How did you become an artist? How did this start for you?
I was one of the founders of Colorado Timberline, a clothing company. I was vice president of sales and I designed products; I still do that kind of stuff. I had to start knowing some programs where we could laser logos onto fleece, etc. This is how I really got to learn how to create using different programs. Then one day, Kelli made me go to Open Door Studios [a renowned Evergreen weekend event where local artists create in their own space while allowing visitors to observe their process]. And I’m a person who’s never been to an art museum. Still. So I go there and see someone had put a photograph on canvas. I had no idea you could do that. $500? I could do that! And I came up with my artistic method while standing there… and I went home and designed my first image that night.
Can you explain your process to me?
I either take photos or find photos where there is a contrast of light and dark. For example, I’ll create my musician friend’s album cover. I’ll take dozens of portrait type pictures with them moving their head this way or that. Then I’ll find the best one that has contrast and begin layering with different background designs I find until I’ve accomplished the look I’m going for. Everything in my process works on lights and darks. I use three different computer programs and by the time I’m finished with a piece, there’s not one original pixel from the photo. I then get it printed on canvas, aluminum, acrylic or a matted print.
Where do you find your inspiration?
All artists go through blocks. Basically, you have to talk to people. Keep your eyes open. If someone says, “I like purple,” next thing I know I’m making purple everything. What I love is rust. There is so much in rust… there are all those variations of colors. I’ll also go through pictures on Flicker or a similar site to find new ideas.
Where do you sell them?
My first pieces I sold at Winterfest [an annual event that takes place in Evergreen where local artisans showcase their work]. I sold in several galleries initially, then pulled all my work to focus more on art shows because I sell more there. I’m still in Gallery 1505 on Pearl Street in Denver.
What do you love about doing what you do? What are your struggles?
I don’t sleep much. I’m up late, I’m up early. And in real estate, there is some downtime. I prefer to fill that time. I just love the creativity part. At the same time, I’m also thinking—what’s next? How am I going to take what I do and take it to another level? You see, I’m different from other artists because I think about the marketing aspect of things. I don’t create to just create; I think, who am I selling to?
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Stay with something and perfect it—then change it. Create what will sell.
Bill and Kelli graciously invite me into their home after the interview to show me samples of their work. Bill’s beautiful photos adorn most walls while Kelli’s eclectic lampshades cover most surfaces as they prepare for the next art show in Breckenridge. They look forward to traveling around the country to prominent festivals and art shows doing what they love—together. If you’d like to see the artists in action, both Bill and Kelli will be participating in Open Door Studios this year—September 18 and 19 from 10-5 pm.
To see more of Bill’s artwork, visit his site at billvarnerimages.com