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Young Holtville Family Paying it Forward with Art

HOLTVILLE — A young family’s love story and creative vision started with a single piece of art.

“I saw his artwork on the wall, and my mind just blew,” Gina Rivas Varela of Holtville said. 

About eight years ago, Gina was the coordinator of art exhibits at the Café 101 restaurant in El Centro for about four years.

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That same art piece was seen by Ramon Villa, another Holtville resident. 

“It was a zombie head, and it looked like it was flying through the air. It was super detailed — it looked realistic,” Villa said. That art piece was by Gabriel Varela.

“Gina provided an outlet for the youth to stay out of trouble because they were doing something positive instead of just roaming the streets, because that is how kids get into bad things, drugs, vandalizing, gangs, etc.,” Villa said.

Villa recalls attending about four art shows at Café 101, where he displayed about eight of his own pieces. 

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“Sometimes I didn’t have anything to display, but I would hang out because they would have music and free food and a lot of my friends were there. It was something to do honestly, because in the Valley there is nothing to do,” he said.

Through the Café 101 collective of loosely affiliated artist, Gina stated, we “built this safe haven for people to show case their work, with music groups, local bands, poetry, even artists from Yuma and San Diego came to the events. It was a big legit thing, but Café 101 had to make a business decision and had to relocate.” 

That was the end of the Café 101 collective.

Out of the Ashes, Varela Collective is Born

Several years later, Varela Collective was born. An art studio and exhibit collective, the Varela Collective art studio offers instructional classes for youths and is based in Holtville.  

Varela Collective is made up of Gina and Gabriel Varela, Raymond Rivas, and Nina Earls. The collective contains artwork from various artists from the Imperial Valley.

Gina does the commission work, reaching out to organizations, and other people. Gabriel is a mentor to the collective and does commission work as well. 

“Cardi B” by Holtville artist Gina Varela is shown and displayed at the Varela Collective in Holtville an on the web.| COURTESY PHOTO

Raymond Rivas (Gina’s brother) is the technical person and is also a digital artist. He is the gatekeeper for the website. He loads up the pictures of art pieces and handles emails, logos, mass media, etc.

Nina Earls (Gina’s sister) does family friendly live craft videos on Facebook every Friday. Because it is summer break, it is another tool given out for free.

“It (art) is more than a distraction,” it’s a method of expressing themselves, Gina, an advocate for art who believes it saves lives. “With what is happening in the world right now, it (art) is a way of coping with your emotions.”

Varela is using Facebook and Instagram and other methods of media to help people during this time. 

Helping the Schools During Pandemic

“Due to COVID, all schools were closed, and they turned to Zoom and virtual learning,” Gina said. “At end of this school year, a friend from El Centro Elementary School District reached out to me. She asked if I would mind teaching a Zoom class for her students K-6th grade. I worked on something for each age group. Within a week we came up with real art basics starting with paper and pen.”

The class noted the endless possibilities in the art world, from makeup, costume designs, drawing, mockups, production, all starting with pen and paper.

“This Zoom class was held the last three weeks of school, and it was a huge success. The kids loved it, and we (Varela Collective) were recognized by the school board,” Gina said.

Taking a New Path for the Betterment of the Community

Pre-COVID-19, the Varela family was planning to stage art workshops for youth ages 5-18 in a one-on-one classroom environment with a nominal fee of $10 per person for materials.

“Unfortunately, this had to be cancelled due to COVID,” said Gina. “We also reached out to the virtual world for online but didn’t get a lot of engagement, so instead we started to work on Imperial Valley charitable work.”

Each month a different charity was chosen.

“Cthulhu” by Holtville artist Gabriel Varela is shown and displayed at the Varela Collective in Holtville an on the web.| COURTESY PHOTO

The first charity month was May, starting with Holtville High’s Yellow Ribbon Club, which is a suicide prevention club. June was Cancer Resource Center of the Desert. July was for the Niland fire fund. 

The collective “gathered artwork from different artists in the Valley and did an auction for the Niland fire victims. Within one week (ending July 8), we raised over $840 after expenses. We partnered with Spread the Love Charity, who had a fire fund going on, and the proceeds were donated to that fire fund,” Gina said. 

How Gina and Gabriel Found Their Inspiration

Gina started art at a young age.

“Going through an emotional period, we had just lost our brother who was only 32. I was 13 and I didn’t know where my life was going; however, I was very passionate — I wanted to be an artist … I did apprentice work at a local tattoo shop but figured this is not the place for me,” she said. 

After the tattoo shop, she went off doing own thing, going to different art forms. Then she got pregnant at a young age and her priority shifted to provide for her daughter. Gina started working at age 18.

“One day, while I was at work, the owner of Café 101 showed up and asked if I would be interested in displaying my artwork at his restaurant,” she said. From there, Gina started getting artists together and promoting the art exhibits at Café 101.

“Local businesses were donating $50, $100 here and there for materials. It took a lot of work and materials. The exhibits continued every month for about three to four years,” Gina said.

Gabriel and Gina have a young family — two girls (ages 10 and 3) and one boy (7 months old).

“Abe Spien” by Holtville artist Gabriel Varela is shown and displayed at the Varela Collective in Holtville an on the web.| COURTESY PHOTO

Gabriel is the drawer and Gina is the painter. Gabriel works with pastel, graphite, charcoal, etc., and he specializes in ballpoint pen and ink. Gina specializes in colored-pencil portraits. She recently painted a mini-mural in front of her house that represents unity.

Gina graduated from Holtville High School. Gina says she was inspired by her art instructor, Eddie Shiffer, Holtville High School. 

“He opened my eyes to a whole other world of art — different medias and tools.”  

In addition to coordinating the Varela Collection, Gina cares for her children and husband.

Gabriel has an Associate Degree in Fine Arts. He is a paraeducator who works strictly with the students, and most of the time works with special education students. He has a teaching background and is finishing his teaching credentials and hopes to be certified by 2021.

“Rad” by Holtville artist Gabriel Varela is shown and displayed at the Varela Collective in Holtville an on the web.| COURTESY PHOTO

Gabriel started at a young age loving art with his earliest memory doing kindergarden projects. He recalls saying to himself I like doing this. Also, while growing up, Gabriel would see his brother drawing all the time. His brother, unfortunately, died at a young age, but he was the inspiration for his love for drawing.

“When we were young, we were both exposed to art culture and now we take those tools and give them to our community,” Gina said. 

“Art is a dying subject and it is considered a No. 1 target for being cut. Music, fine arts, theatrical all being cut,” Gina said.

“Me and my husband are art fanatics/influencers,” stated Gina. They started the Varela Collective with the Rivas brother and sister.    

The Varela Collective art studio offers instructional classes for youth and is based in Holtville, Calif.   Visit their site to subscribe to their newsletter and events.  You can shop for art pieces and also donate to the Varela Collective or the Niland Donation fund.  https://varelacollective.com/

A mural painted by Holtville artist Gina Varela titled “Unity” is displayed in front of her home. | COURTESY PHOTO

This story is featured in the Jul 23, 2020 e-Edition.