Vargas found shelter, identity, and inspiration making and teaching art while he was incarcerated. His work was exhibited at the University of Michigan through the Prison Creative Arts Project’s (PCAP) Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners for 23 years and numerous solo exhibitions, including shows in Ann Arbor, Lansing, Ypsilanti and East Lansing.
His work now appears in Michigan galleries and businesses and in private collections as far away as Mexico, Canada, Israel, Germany, and China. The powerful specificity of his depictions of personal experiences resonate deeply with audiences around the globe. Vargas describes his art as a part of a spiritual approach to living that acknowledges the terrible challenges faced by all people, whether those challenges come in the form of peer pressure, abuse, incarceration, or disease.
He remarks that all people face sources of pain and trauma, but through art everyone can “make medicine” and open doorways to more expansive lives.
While he was in prison and his work was being exhibited in the outside world, Vargas painted a lively depiction of a museum gallery that held his art on the walls and featured Pudgies walking freely through the space. Though he, himself, at the time could not yet be physically present at his own exhibitions, he used art to visualize, mentally create, and embody the space.
In another painting titled, Making Medicine, a universal human figure stands inside the threshold of an enclosed cave—a tight space—though dark and confining, its walls are adorned with art and the shamanic figure inside performs a healing ritual. A crow in the foreground builds a nest of found materials, including an arrowhead Vargas once encountered in an important, personal moment. Outside the opening of the cave, another crow beckons on the horizon between the blue sky and green of the trees.
In a later work, his last major painting completed while incarcerated, titled Painting His Way Home, Vargas depicts himself as a large, green Pudgie, embodying new life and rebirth. Like the shamanic figure in Making Medicine, he sits in a tightly confined space, with prison bars visible in the background. On every inch of the walls hang miniature reproductions of his own past artwork, a retrospective of life in prison. Vargas, as a green universal figure, paints an opening into the wall, outside of which we see his future home and the green and lush landscape of the normal life he is creating through his work. This image is powerfully effecting, as is Vargas himself — especially on the day we sat down over Zoom to talk about his art.