Brian Chilson
LIGHT AND LANGUAGE: Virmarie DePoyster poses in the studio with “Inner Fire, Family Rock, Regal — Passive,” a portrait from her “Beyond Labels” series.

Chances are, whoever coined the adage “Those who can’t do, teach” never met many art teachers. Painter Virmarie DePoyster, who moved from her native Puerto Rico to El Dorado, Arkansas, at age 15, has carved out an art career that blends gallery exhibitions, commissions and outreach work, much of which grapples with questions of identity. This year, her portrait “Trustworthy” was purchased by the The Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas for its permanent collection, and “Hope,” her pastel painting of a honeybee, will be reproduced 107 times to create a traveling “bee swarm” installation for ARORA, Arkansas’s largest organ, tissue and eye recovery agency.

“Trustworthy, Kind, Loves Harmonies — Soft,” pastel on arches

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You say in your artist statement that you consider yourself to be doing something similar to what your Spanish-English translational dictionary did for you as a teenager. Can you explain that? 

My dad was a Pentecostal preacher in Puerto Rico to a very large church. He got our babysitter pregnant, and my mom was a little pissed off. That awful turn of events brought me, mom and my two sisters to live with family friends in El Dorado. I was 15 and going into the 10th grade. We slept all four in a one-bedroom and were on food stamps for a year before my mom could find a job. Along the way we met the most wonderful people who gave us clothes and helped us. Teachers really wanted to help us succeed. Back then, there wasn’t a Spanish-as-a-second language program, so we went straight into a classroom setting without knowing or understanding English. It took about a year to understand English well, so I carried the dictionary with me everywhere. So I was labeled as the new girl, the Puerto Ricans, etc. Before that I was “the Pentecostal.” Like everyone who immigrates or migrates, we longed for a better life — to belong, connect and not stand out. Art gives me a voice and allows me to tell stories I am passionate about as the dictionary allowed me to speak all those years back.

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I was almost astonished to see your more recent collection “Holding Space” after seeing your more realistic portraits. They’re so different and so much more impressionistic. What would you say, if anything, that the pandemic has changed about your work? 

That series came about because during COVID, I was by myself. Before COVID, … I had been with models, and I had 10 students who came weekly. So I started trying to look and see how I could hold my own space when I don’t have people to hold space for me. It became a lot about line, a lot about shape, trying to find softness in things, trying not to be bitter. … I found that at the beginning of COVID, my colors had become very dark, very gray, very moody. And I thought, ‘I’m gonna play with colors I haven’t played with before,’ and then when I started coming out of that, everything became more airy. Looking at really bright color was just getting my eyes. I didn’t want to see all that brightness. I wanted it to be more subtle, soothing. So that’s why the palette is different.

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“Embrace,” acrylic, pastel, 2021

You do gallery exhibitions here in Arkansas and outside the United States, but I understand a huge part of your work has been focused on art as therapy — leading a program teaching at-risk youth in Conway and Russellville, for one, and three years providing art services to patients in acute care at The BridgeWay. Why do you think it’s a good idea for people dealing with adversity in their own lives to turn to making art? What’s the benefit?

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Providing therapeutic art classes to patients is some of the most meaningful work I have ever done. Weekly, I got to facilitate and witness patients draw and paint about their current situation and how much better they felt for letting it out on paper. My teaching style and the way I saw art changed for the better because of them. art

What music do you listen to while you work? What was the music you were listening to when I came into the studio?

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That was some Spanish guitar. I do listen to a lot of Spanish music. I can listen to it for hours and hours. I go from Spanish guitar to salsa, and then sometimes if I’m working on something really detailed and very tedious, I listen to classical music. … During my “Beyond Labels” exhibition, I started having health issues and learned I needed a hysterectomy. An MRI detected a “suspicious lesion” in a fibroid and I wasn’t going to know whether it was cancer or not until the frozen section of the spot was done. I only shared it with a few people because I wanted the message behind the exhibition to be heard and didn’t want to overshadow it with my illness. As I waited for surgery, I was in the “waiting room” — you know, that place where you wait and wait for answers. To stay busy I painted and surprisingly I learned I was not able to listen to music at all. The noise was too much as I had so many thoughts circling in my head. I’m sure a music therapist could tell me what that’s all about.

Self-portrait by Virmarie Depoyster

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What is your favorite color, or maybe just your favorite color right now? 

For some reason it’s always this turquoise teal. I have shoes that color, underwear that color. Sometimes people think it’s moody, so I try to pair it with colors that make it happy, because I like it so much.