American, born Lithuania
(Alsedziai, Lithuania, 1917 - 2010, Vilnius, Lithuania)
The son of a religious wood sculptor and painter, Kazys Varnelis studied decorative arts at the Institute of Applied and Decorative Art in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he graduated in 1941. While a student, Varnelis became interested in folk art, and he served as director of the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art in Kaunas from 1941 – 1943 before continuing his study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria, where he received an advanced degree in painting in 1949. Rather than return to Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Varnelis immigrated to America, settling in Chicago. In 1951 he opened a studio specializing in stained glass windows for churches. It wasn’t until 1963 that Varnelis devoted himself to painting and sculpture full-time.
Varnelis’s stark geometric abstractions were influenced by European modern art movements, especially Bauhaus and constructivism, and his interest in the geometric patterning of Lithuanian folk art. He began exhibiting regularly in the Midwest in the 1970s, with solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Illinois; the Milwaukee Art Center (now Museum), Wisconsin; and the University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, Iowa. When Varnelis’s native country regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1998, he returned to Lithuania. Varnelis turned his home, where he housed a vast collection of folk and religious art along with his own artworks and rare book collection, into the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania, now operated by the National Museum of Lithuania.