Today we’d like to introduce you to Darja Vaarsi.
Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I was born in Tartu, Estonia when it was illegally occupied by Communism and came to America as a political refugee. It was a very violent and difficult time, our national identity was essentially banned, including our language, as was religion, most art and so forth. My family is nobility, my father a freedom fighter that survived wrongful imprisonment through a notorious agency and torture for over a decade, including a near fatal gunshot wound to the head at age 14. He was a war hero and responsible for saving the lives of countless innocent individuals, primarily youth during his incarceration. We sold all of our possessions and bribed our way out, trekking across Europe homeless for nearly 5 years with just the clothing on our backs and our St. Bernard Pelia. I grew up throughout Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy and most places in between. Once in Italy we were sponsored by diplomats and through cooperation with American government were granted political asylum. Our cross Atlantic voyage began!
I had a tumultuous childhood and youth, involving some foster care, supporting myself and working full time since the age of 14. I overcame various hardships such as homelessness, living in shelters, rape, domestic violence and a near fatal gunshot wound. I never really had a lot of opportunity in life (or a safety net) so I always had to create it myself. The world doesn’t care if you’re having a bad day, but it does care if you have a bad attitude. I grew up throughout Texas, Washington State, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Chicago and have traveled to most of the US states. Due to my past, at a young age I dedicated myself to various non-profit work including but not limited to animal rescue, welfare reform, alternative diet outreach, sustainable agriculture, wildlife preservation and feeding the homeless. This led to a long-term career in Veterinary medicine and working with hundreds of animal rescue groups. Prior to moving to Chicago I always lived close to the ocean but the great lakes are an admirable challenge.
I don’t find much in the world intimidating and it’s helped me live a very colorful life. When I was younger I was introduced to motorcycles and drag racing, in more recent years it’s had me take up surfing, learn scuba diving and become a nationally certified sailor. I want to learn and accomplish as much as possible so I have a lot of lofty goals in the vein of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m currently working towards becoming a licensed sea captain, my husband and I hope to live on a yacht and circumnavigate the globe one day, so we try to pick up any skills that wiIl help us sustain ourselves along the way. I am absolutely fascinated by the ocean and it’s wildlife, drawn to it, have a passion for protecting it, love doing long distance sailing and sailing photography! We currently have a music side project together: California Widow. I suppose my life can show how trauma and lack of opportunity can affect someone in a negative way, but I hope what I’ve done with my life in spite of everything can help others. I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide over the years and feel we have a responsibility to be honest about our lives. Granted mine might not be the life I imagined, however I love how I can relate to almost anyone on a genuine level, it’s made me incredibly empathetic and compassionate.
Please tell us about your art.
I’d say I am a personality, I am generally booked for work to portray myself. I’m most known for my modeling work (publications, art exhibits, music videos, advertisements, commercials, look books, film/album covers and books). I began modeling casually at 16 in an attempt to win a scholarship I could put towards veterinary school. Later on I primarily used it as a way to challenge my creativity, I grew up incredibly poor at times, so I like to see how much I can accomplish with minimal resources. However I am also a musician, actress, visual artist, photographer and writer/poet. I have been pursuing acting in recent years and have had the pleasure to work on various NBC, Fox, Amazon, Showtime, Netflix television shows, feature films, commercials. Most recently in a short film/music video with Michael Shannon which was a fun surprise since I really respect him as an actor. I’ve additionally done some stunt training as I’ve always had an interest in being an action actress and performing my own stunts. My father was a gunsmith/swordsman and I grew up as a tomboy obsessed with Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Lee and so forth.
I currently have a folk rock music project called California Widow with my husband Brendan (formerly of Defcon, Wolvhammer). He is North American audio director for World of Tanks and enjoys doing live concert sound. Our background is in Industrial and Black Metal, however the new project is Johnny Cash meets Quentin Tarantino. It’s a labor of love and we enjoy contributing music to soundtracks when we can.
Art for me is many things, therapy, a personal challenge, escapism, something innate and internal I cannot help but harness and articulate into an outward expression. I come from a long line of musicians and artists who existed during a time/place art was predominantly illegal, these things were integral to your survival because it was a way to celebrate when life was exceptionally bleak, war torn and without guarantee. The truest statement I can make is that art has always helped me and brought me true happiness. I have had PTSD for most of my life and used it to process my pain in a healthy way. I suffered from amnesia for a large part of my life and still don’t remember many years of it. It’s an interesting thing to come to terms with and find a way to live with because you know that information will come back, you simply don’t know when so you try to prepare yourself as much as possible. I fell in love with surfing later on in life, it’s personally my most favorite activity and simultaneously the most therapeutic one. There is a Netflix documentary regarding surfing as PTSD therapy on war veterans, the Navy is currently conducting a study of this as well.
All of my art is very personal, oftentimes an extension of my being, personality, essence. I am a story teller and heavily involved from every aspect of a project from conceptualization to execution. Any time I do not possess a skill, I learn it so that I could communicate things more exactly, whether it’s hair/make-up/wardrobe styling, photo editing, art direction, photography, yoga, dance and so forth. I suppose that ultimately I am simply a person that has a lot to say, but it’s not about anything temporary like pop culture. It’s more about being a real person, navigating through things that are a part of the human condition, that are always relatable and always exist, whether it’s suffering or sexuality. I generally have one of a few goals, either add something positive to someone’s life, whether it’s inspiration, positivity, or let them know I understand exactly how they feel and that they are not alone. Art saves people.
I also like to focus on topics that are not popular. People like things that make them comfortable, happy and safe. But thing things that often matter are things that make you uncomfortable, force you to see personal truths, that awaken emotion, are thought provoking, seeing the world as it really is, remembering how people live elsewhere. I see so many people that live in self devised bubbles, they think they are good people, that they are not racist, prejudiced, narrow minded, but they are and they unknowingly do so much damage to others around them because of it. So I want to stir that and see if people can change. I will admit I have a lot of art projects I have kept private and only share a very small percentage of what I do. I don’t feel the need to share everything about my life and am fine waiting until a project is finished. Sometimes I come back to something years laters when the time is right. Given everything that is going on in the world today, do you think the role of artists has changed? How do local, national or international events and issues affect your art?
I strongly believe that due to pop culture and the age of social media that talent or the quality of your work don’t necessarily matter. So I wouldn’t use your popularity as a means to assess your value, great artists get buried, others succeed. But it’s more to do with how society has changed and if you’re great at adapting, running a business and marketing yourself. It’s nothing personal, this happens with every medium as time moves forward. It isn’t something I’m completely comfortable with or enjoy but it’s a necessity…
Art is a valuable resource that everyone should have access to. It is often a lifeline, has the power to transform people, change lives, make differences in the world and unites individuals in times of difficulty, injustice and civil unrest. Sometimes the responsibility of speaking for a group of people that can not speak for themselves also becomes the responsibility of artists. I have some fairly strong opinions about the state of world ranging from our current administration, gender roles, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, propaganda, social media, global warming, pollution and so forth. Like any immigrant I experience a lot of cultural differences. I’ve adapted quite well but everything my family went through caused us to grow up incredibly isolated from society, English was my third language, I still think/talk to myself in a foreign language and surround my life with my cultures daily. When much of your life has been about fear and instability it’s a lot for anyone to handle, many people are unaware of how difficult it is for refugees, many families are torn apart in the process. Both of my parents had terrible lives and my heart goes out to them. I feel that the current American representative is fueling confidence in individuals with backwards values to come out of the wood work. Hate is a large problem here, racism and anti-anti-immigrant sentiment go hand in hand.
I feel people have certain expectations of me based on superficial reasons and this comes up in my work most often. For someone that has done so much on camera work I’m a fairly private person. I’m amazed by this country’s obsession with sexualizing everything, we praise famous people for the same things we ostracize our peers for: personal sexual confidence, honesty and freedom. Nudity and sexuality can exist separately from each other, if people choose to always exclusively associate them with one another then that falls on the viewer, not the subject. I’ve historically preferred doing dark work with elements of horror that lack traditional beauty standards or sexual appeal. In recent years I’ve gravitated towards portraits. I’ve always primarily focused on cultivating moods and conveying emotion. My work has had large amount of fantasy/escapism within it but I’m changing direction and working on projects that are in sharp contrast to anything I’ve done before. I’m working on a couple of new series, check back soon! How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
Please visit my personal website: www.darjavaarsi.com and follow my social media accounts or pages. I will be opening a print shop of my artwork and photography with proceeds benefiting marine conservation in the future. I recently had a collaboration with Harry Sudman on display at Rosenthal Fine Art and SOFA. My music project California Widow has a cameo in/music on the soundtrack of Latin short Dreamer ( a DACA film) making the festival rounds. We are currently completing our debut album.
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Sage Etters, TJ Manou, Darja Vaarsi, Aaron Nace, Hank Pearl/Black Pearl Photography, Kat Bret, John Gatta, Purebred Productions, Gina Barbara Photography, Chad Michael Ward, NoAmy Photography
Original interview on Voyage Magazine