By MIRANDA BAINES
THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
PINETOPS – Two years ago, students likely would not have paused to look at the nondescript yellowing walls of the hallway at SouthWest Edgecombe High School leading to the Air Force JROTC classroom. These days, people often stop and admire the vibrant colors on the walls refreshed by JROTC Cadet Chris Varnell.
“We try to encourage our kids to leave a legacy and Chris has risen to this challenge,” said Col. Mike Whitehurst, senior aerospace science instructor for the JROTC program.
A junior at SouthWest and self-taught artist, Varnell painted a mural depicting the first flight of the Wright Brothers on the wall on the left side of the hallway in the ninth grade, and just completed painting a mural on the right wall, depicting a World War II battle scene over the Pacific Ocean. Whitehurst had instructed Varnell to paint something with a Naval theme, and left the rest up to him.
“We wanted to go from an older to a newer theme (to demonstrate) how far we’ve adapted in building planes,” said Varnell. While Varnell’s first mural shows the homemade plane flown by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903, his second depicts more modern, sophisticated aircraft – a British spitfire plane, aircraft carrier and a destroyer.
Varnell is in the final stages of painting a Cougar, the school’s mascot, on the center wall. He used acrylic paint for the Cougar mural.
“I thought it’d be something different,” Varnell said. “Instead of just painting something for the ROTC, why not paint something for the whole school?”
Varnell sketched a drawing of the Wright Brothers scene and painted the mural by projecting the image of his drawing onto the wall. The project took him three semesters to complete, and includes details such as the Wright Brothers’ tin barn with a wooden roof and the tent in which they slept while experimenting with flight. Varnell freehanded the World War II mural, using primarily oil based paint.
“That was all just me and my pencil and my brush,” said the young artist. The project took him about five weeks from start to finish.
Varnell’s work in the high-school hallway is not yet complete. Before his graduation, he plans to paint a 1960’s-era rocket, in keeping with the old-to-modern aircraft theme of his murals, on the front wall at the entrance of the hallway.
“Hopefully it would give other artists inspiration to do what they enjoy in life,” said Varnell, of his mural projects.
Varnell called artwork “my own learning process.” He has used an array of artistic mediums ranging from watercolors to acrylics to graphite and the medium he chooses depends on his mood that day. His JROTC colonel (Whitehurst) is a carpenter who encourages his students’ exploration of their artistic talents. The students have built everything from a replica of the Wright Brothers’ airplane to model rockets.
“Our mission statement is to build better citizens for America,” said Whitehurst. To him, that entails more than just teaching the students how to march.
Varnell plans to pursue a career in the U.S. Marines, but after establishing his career, he wants to study art.
“I would love to go to Praxton Institute in New York. I’ve heard they’ve got really good art studies,” Varnell said. He wants to focus on artwork from the High Renaissance and said the two artists from that era have inspired him the most – Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
Pablo Picasso is the artist who inspired a recent work that Varnell presented at a spring arts reception for the school system Tuesday evening – “Abstracted Self Portrait.” The acrylic painting has an abstract design using triangle and square shapes and depicts two sides of the artist, through the use of warm and cool colors.
“The warm side – orange, red and yellow – is the positive side, the brightness of my life,” said Varnell. “The cool side – blues, greens and purples –is the sadness of me.”
Varnell discovered his artistic talent in kindergarten, when he created his first drawing, of an alien.
“I’ve really been blessed with a talent that not many people can understand,” said the artist. That talent is visualizing something, taking a brush, some paint and a canvas and creating something remarkable.
Varnell is the son of Jim and Cynthia Varnell.