Finding new life with art: UNO art instructor reworks used materials


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Sarah Norman

Giving new life to objects other people consider trash is the foundation for Bart Vargas’s inspirational art.

Using plastic bottles and food packaging, as well as card-board and computer keys, the University of Nebraska at Omaha art and art history instructor shapes the materials into a variety of forms such as skulls, globes, and maps.

In addition to his sculptures, he creates paintings that incorporate salvaged wood from thrown out theater sets and house paint.

“When you paint something and put it on the wall, people don’t realize it is trash anymore,” Vargas said. “They don’t see its previous life.”

Cassie Sullivan, who works at the Anderson O’Brien Fine Arts Gallery in the Old Market where some of Vargas’s art can be found, said gallery clients enjoy that Vargas’s work is created with reusable materials.

Vargas said he pursued a career in art because it comes naturally to him. The artist said his mother told him he has been drawing ever since he could hold something in his hand. While he took art classes throughout his primary school education, he took about 10 years off before going to college to pursue an art degree.

During that time, Vargas joined the military and the only art he created was a mural to represent his unit stationed in France during the Bosnian Conflict.

“We are taking things in all the time,” the instructor said. “Everything is influential, but sometimes you don’t know you’ve been influenced until you have hindsight.”

Since 2006, Vargas has had exhibitions of his art throughout the nation and in other countries. His work has been featured in numerous publications including Sculpture Magazine, New American Paintings and HGTV Magazine. While some of the features have been submissions, others were unexpected.

In graduate school, Vargas was selected among 20 people in the United States and Europe for a Contemporary Student Achievement in Sculpture Award for a piece about plastic’s permanence.

“All the plastic we’ve ever made is still here on the planet,” Vargas said. “When our descendants dig us up they’re going to find a lot of plastic.”

The most surprising feature happened because a designer bought a painting by Vargas and designed a room around it, Vargas said. A story in HGTV Magazine about the designer featured the room with his painting as a focus.

“Art has given me a rich life,” Vargas said when asked about his accomplishments. “I think teaching is the most viable way to pay it forward.”

He said the best part of teaching is watching people make personal growth and find their own voice through the use of objects and images.

“Bart cares just as much about the profession of art as his own art,” said Omaha Creative Institute Executive Director Emily Moody. “He is generous with his time for other artists and is an enthusiastic leader in the Omaha Arts community.”