Desert Companion

One 2 Watch: Luis Varela-Rico

He’s making beauty take flight in the streets — with or without permission

A man in gray-rimmed glasses with long dark hair curling out from underneath a ball cap scans the intersection, the cameras.

“Always a little nervous,” he explains. On three sides loom massive ads for cut-rate lawyers. Is this a comfort? He gestures to a phone on the dash of his truck. “My dad’s number’s in there — call him and let him know if I get arrested?”

Twenty-eight year old Las Vegas artist Luis Varela-Rico has quickly gained notoriety for his guerilla installations around town. But unlike some street art, his work isn’t about breaking the law, challenging authority or even making a statement. He doesn’t mind going under his own name because his installations, while not legal, are not intended to deface any property. And they’re very pretty. All are variations on origami-style cranes and airplanes delicately crafted from thin sheets of metal.

“I want to consider them beautifying the area,” he says. “I’m just bringing it where people will appreciate it — it’s recognizable, simple, people get it.”

The native of Guadalajara, Mexico, has spent most of his life in Las Vegas and studied ceramics at CSN and UNLV, but it was his day job constructing elevators that helped give him the skills and insight to mimic origami in a slightly more durable medium (YouTube “steel origami” for a video of the artist folding cranes with a blowtorch).

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“Everything I’ve ever done creatively is just a big snowball effect where one thing leads to another,” he says. “Accidents.” He knew he had a fortunate one when he stumbled on origami about a year ago, but it wasn’t until he began displaying his work en plein air that the cranes took off. After being turned down for a show at the Contemporary Arts Center in March, he decided to take his work to the streets and began hanging sculptures around the Arts District. Just two months later, the CAC offered him a roost in their display windows and soon the Brett Wesley Gallery snapped up the emerging artist.

“You see prints a lot, but it was so exciting to see someone doing guerilla art in 3-D,” says gallery director Victoria Hart, who first noticed his work dangling off a vacant property across the street. She pointed out the mysterious installation to painter Kevin Chupik, who happened to be a teacher and good friend of Varela-Rico, who happened to be standing right next to him. Now they’re planning a gallery show for sometime next year.

But that doesn’t mean Varela-Rico is grounding his work. In just a few minutes, in broad daylight, the deed is done: birds of folded metal swoop down off a speed-limit sign while a squadron of paper planes scrambles around the stop light on Charleston Boulevard. The artist is gone, disappeared into the city (more specifically, into the Bar + Bistro for a debrief and a beer).

Across the street, a lone man in a wheelchair waiting for the bus notices a strange new appendage on the street sign. He peers, approaches cautiously. Then, in the hot sun, he performs a slow tour around the post, gazing up at the cranes from every angle before retreating back to the shade of the bus shelter.

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