Joshua Tehee

Artist, craftsman FranCisco Vargas helped define Fresno’s mural district

FranCisco Vargas puts away his painting supplies after finishing the Iron Bird Lofts mural in 2013. Vargas worked on the piece for about two weeks. It was his fourth work at Iron Bird and features a clarinet with dragonfly wings playing into a microphone and serves as a celebration of Fresno’s downtown music and arts district. The work was made possible by Creative Fresno.
FranCisco Vargas puts away his painting supplies after finishing the Iron Bird Lofts mural in 2013. Vargas worked on the piece for about two weeks. It was his fourth work at Iron Bird and features a clarinet with dragonfly wings playing into a microphone and serves as a celebration of Fresno’s downtown music and arts district. The work was made possible by Creative Fresno. Fresno Bee file

Had FranCisco Vargas lived another 100 years he still wouldn’t have had time to paint everything that was in his head.

The Fresno muralist and sign painter was always planning his next project – even after being diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in July.

After being admitted to Saint Agnes Medical Center in what would be the final week of his life, it was his legacy that worried him.

“He felt he hadn’t done enough,” said his daughter Serena Vargas, who, along with her sister, Christina Vargas Bertrand, was by his side when he died Monday morning at the age of 64. “He felt like he was still in his prime. ”

Vargas was prolific. His work was bold and original and helped define entire blocks of downtown Fresno, like the set of interlocking gears with the words “Mural District” in gold lettering atop Broadway Lofts.

He painted murals at several of Granville’s urban developments, including the Dragonfly Blues Lounge mural at Iron Bird Lofts. It’s a humorous advertisement complete with a finger pointing the way to the fictitious jazz club. It reads: “420 Bourbon St. Two blocks somewhere.”

Vargas was behind the Welcome to Fresno mural at 746 Broadway St., the 20-by-50-foot game of nine ball on the side of Mecca Billiards on Fulton Street and a work-in-progress at the Bitwise South Stadium building.

But his best-known work might be the Fresno postage stamp mural at Tuolumne Street and Van Ness Avenue. It runs more than 100 feet across the entire wall of the Business Journal building. From afar it’s a welcome sign for the city. Up close it’s filled with a detailed history of Fresno and its icons.

“He would have painted every wall down there if he had time. The guy is a local legend,” said Reza Assemi, an artist and the developer behind the Iron Bird Lofts.

By trade, Vargas was a sign painter. His first job was painting Christmas scenes at a senior citizens mobile home park with a set of brushes he’d been give as a gift. He made $500 or so and fell in love with the work. He studied at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College before moving back to Fresno in the late 1980s and starting his own commercial sign-painting business.

He was a muralist and member of the Wall Dogs, an international group of traveling artists who meet once a year in a specific city to paint multiple murals and old-fashioned wall advertisements. Vargas was “top dog,” in fact, a demarcation earned only by painters who have worked on a wall 100 feet high.

He lived an authentic artistic life, Assemi says. It was clear when you met him that art was the thing he thought about all the time.

Vargas was also a true craftsman, as comfortable painting other artist’s designs as working on his own. His execution, especially in the free-hand brush, was “amazing.” His talent was clearly evident in how he used materials and how he knew how to use those materials, Assemi says.

In 1998, he traveled from Fresno to Florida in a 1977 Winnebago. He worked his way across the country, stopping to earn food and gas money and documenting the whole thing on more than 50 rolls of film. The Bee wrote about the adventure in January 1999.

“It was like an education,” Vargas said, “summing up the value of his quest.”

He wasn’t selfish with his knowledge, either. Many of the city’s younger muralists – guys like Robert Amador, who’s done more than a few walls himself, and big ones – started off sharing the scaffolding with Vargas.

Vargas had a unique talent as a mentor – and for creating images that give Fresno an identity and define its arts scene.

“When I think about the local artists in Fresno and the multitude of talents we have, FranCisco has set himself apart,” said Lilia Chavez, executive director with the Fresno Arts Council.

He did it by quietly working and continually developing his craft. And he did it without much fanfare or sense of ego.

“His work spoke for itself,” Chavez said.

In the days immediately after his death, Vargas’ family has seen proof of his legacy. They have been inundated with social media messages and posts paying homage to the man and his work, said Serena Vargas.

There will be a celebration of his life and his work, held 30 days (Oct. 7) from the date of his death, as was stipulated in his will. The family is still working on the details of the event, but from the outpouring, space might be an issue.

“We’re going to need a stadium,” she said.

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