Hansen: Artist enlists science to answer nagging question — who am I? - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:10 am
Hansen: Artist enlists science to answer nagging question — who am I?

Bart opens up his laptop and clicks open an email that will tell him something he's wanted to know for decades. He will have to wait only one second longer ... OK, five seconds ... OK, 30.

“Of course the Internet is slow right now,” Bart Vargas says and smiles a tense smile.

If Bart seems a little nervous, that's because the hot lights of a documentary film crew shine down upon him and because there is a boom mike a foot from his head and because multiple cameras are pointed at him, poised to capture his expression when he finds out.

And if Bart seems a bit tense, that's because the question that is about to be answered has followed him around his whole life. It has trailed at his feet and nipped at his heels like an overzealous puppy.

It's a basic question. It's maybe the most basic question.

“I can't imagine it changing my life,” Bart said the day before he opened the email. “But I will have an answer. I will finally have a solid answer.”

It started when Bart was a boy growing up in Bellevue. He would go to the playground, and the other boys would call him confusing names. “What's a Jew?” Bart wondered. “And what does that 'k' word mean anyway?”

Are they calling me a kite?

“The memory is of knowing I was disliked, but not knowing exactly why,” Bart says.

This was the first time, but most certainly not the last, that strangers looked at Bart and assumed something about his race, his ethnicity — his very identity — that was fantastically, almost laughably wrong.

But here's the catch: Bart couldn't tell them what was right. Not exactly.

He drove to Grand Island for a wedding. The father of the bride got a little drunk.

“Where'd you park yer camel?” he slurred at Bart.

He walked into a Barnes and Noble. An African man came up to him.

“Are you from the North?” he asked Bart.

“You mean Canada?” Bart asked back.

“No. Morocco.”

He walked down the street. A man walked up to him speaking a language Bart didn't understand.

“I'm sorry?” Bart said.

Bart Vargas, a well-known Omaha artist, has a one-night show called "POWERS" in July.

July 19, 2013
Hoover Studios
Master Craft Building
1111 N. 13th St., Suite 120, Omaha

The man switched to English. He seemed angry.

I'm speaking fluent Greek, the man said. The least that a Greek like yourself could do is acknowledge that.

Bart never knew exactly how to respond.

He knows that his dad was a first-generation immigrant from Mexico. (He died in 2005, of stomach cancer.) He knows that he taught his four boys, including Bart, the youngest, to take pride in that.

“He would say, 'Don't ever hide the fact that you are Mexican.' And I would think, 'Like I would.' Vargas is a traditional Hispanic name. There is no way to hide it, and I never felt any need to hide it.”

He knows that his mom is a white woman from Michigan. He knows that his grandmother decided that Bart's father — her son-in-law — was black enough to “call him the n-word.”

He knows that he never felt Mexican enough for the father's side of his family in Texas, who took to calling him “Anglo.” He never felt white enough for his white family in Michigan. And he never felt like this was the whole story: A grandmother on his mother's side had grown up in an orphanage, and she didn't look white, not exactly.

And what of that Mexican heritage, anyway? Was he Native American? Spanish? African? All of the above?

And so it went, for 40 years of life. Bart graduated from Bellevue West High School. He joined the Nebraska Air National Guard and fixed planes and equipment in both the United States and Europe.

He moved back to Omaha, established a career as a successful artist and college art instructor. When he opens his mouth, he sounds a bit like he could be Tom Brokaw's younger brother.

And yet people look at him and see something else. They see the olive skin, the high cheekbones, the brown eyes, the bushy beard, the dreadlocks.

They do not see Tom Brokaw. They see ... other.

He worked at a gallery in Omaha, and one December he and another man went to hang a piece of art in a wealthy woman's home.

“Merry Christmas,” the wealthy woman said to the other man.

“Merry ... whatever it is you celebrate,” she said to Bart.

He dated a Jewish girl a long time ago, and she told him he looked like her rabbi.

“That was a little weird,” he said. “It made me wonder if she was attracted to her rabbi.”

He went on a business trip to an art museum in Oklahoma, and at a cocktail reception a professor asked him where he was from.

“Bellevue, Nebraska,” he said. No, no, where were you born?

“Bellevue, Nebraska,” he said again. No, no, not this country, she said impatiently. Where are you originally from?

Jesus, lady, have another drink, Bart thought as he smiled politely.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Bart finds this sort of thing more ridiculous than revolting, more annoying than infuriating.

And at some point it gave him an idea, an idea for an art project.

He felt ready to bring it to life this year when he was named an artist-in-residence at the Carver Bank, a new north Omaha art and performance space that's partly sponsored by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

He would figure out what he was. And he would make art about that.

So he researched DNA testing companies. He read about inaccurate tests, and so, to mitigate the possible errors, he spit into two separate cups, put the results in two different bio-bags and shipped them to two different labs.

We are all standing today in Bart's Carver Bank studio — Bart; his girlfriend, Christine Donaghy; me; my wife, Sarah; the film crew; the photographers — because the results are back.

Because it's time to find out what Bart Vargas is.

The first email pops open, revealing a pie chart and a map.

It says Bart is mostly European — a mash-up of Brit, central European and Scandinavian — and a quarter Native American from both North and South America.

“I always wondered if I was partly Native American,” he said. “Now I know.”

Bart opens the second email. It says he is predominantly European, a bit less than a quarter Native American, with a sprinkling of East Asian and sub-Saharan African thrown in for good measure.

“It looks like I had a foot on both sides of the Atlantic,” he says.

And at this point it begins to dawn on Bart. All those people, relatives and strangers, the curious ones and even the bigots — they were all a little bit right.

He is a whole lot Anglo and also the component parts of a modern-day Mexican. He is probably a tiny bit Greek and a tiny bit African. At some point, maybe there was a rabbi in his bloodline. Maybe an Oglala Sioux. Maybe a Viking.

Bart says he does not know what he will do with this. Maybe he will paint the words of every racial and ethnic slur he has been called, or every racial and ethnic slur that now seems a little bit correct.

Maybe he will take a third DNA test and then paint pie charts and bar charts and maps. The Map of Bart.

He doesn't know yet. But as he sits here, the lights shining down upon him, Bart does know this.

“I'm an American mutt,” he says. “Aren't we all?”

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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