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Norcross artist owes his craft to his dad

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Artist Reinaldo Vargas has been painting since he was 6 years old thanks to his father Eugenio who taught him how to paint. Vargas' work is on display at the Vargas & Harbin Studio Gallery in downtown Norcross.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Artist Reinaldo Vargas has been painting since he was 6 years old thanks to his father Eugenio who taught him how to paint. Vargas' work is on display at the Vargas & Harbin Studio Gallery in downtown Norcross.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Samples of work from artist Eugenio Vargas are on display at the Vargas & Harbin Studio Gallery in downtown Norcross. Reinaldo's father Eugenio currently lives in Miami.

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Special Photo Eugenio Vargas, left, and his son Reinaldo, right, gather for a photograph. Eugenio currently lives in Miami.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Artist Reinaldo Vargas has been painting since he was 6 years old thanks to his father Eugenio who taught him how to paint. Vargas' work is on display at the Vargas & Harbin Studio Gallery in downtown Norcross. Reinaldo works on a painting in his home on Friday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Brushes rest in a pot on the work desk of artist Reinaldo Vargas who has been painting since he was 6 years old thanks to his father Eugenio who taught him how to paint.

NORCROSS -- Rey Vargas's paintings have been featured in galleries around the world.

But his journey to become an artist began with humble beginnings, watching his father's brushstrokes at the kitchen table in a cramped Havana apartment.

"My dad introduced art to me," Vargas said in an accent still thick even after nearly 20 years of living in the Atlanta area. "He was my first teacher."

This Father's Day, Vargas knows he owes a lot to his father Eugenio, who worked at a movie theater and was sure to teach his son and daughters about culture, from American classic movies to music, opera and art.

From the drawing pad the father received as a gift from an artist he met, to the watercolor set he won in a newspaper contest, Eugenio's hobby soon became the passion of his son.

After walking past a storied art school on the way to class, Vargas begged his father to join. But, just a boy, he was told he had to wait, work and build his craft.

The boy practiced, drawing Bambi from the Walt Disney movie he saw at his father's theater and copying charaters from comics.

When the time came two years later, Eugenio helped his son create a copy of a da Vinci to show he had the skill to belong in the class.

But as idyllic as his childhood seemed, Vargas began to feel constrained in communist Cuba.

As a young adult, he began to speak out against the oppressive government in the only medium he knew, his art. When a gallery owner took down a piece of Vargas's art that he considered too political, the man began to look for an opportunity to leave home.

"There was nothing I could do here. The police, they would try to put (people) in jail; it was awful," he said.

In 1993, Vargas got a visa from France to do a show in Martinique, and he stayed for two years, living in Paris. From there, he moved to the United States, settling in the Norcross area six years ago and opening a gallery in the historic downtown with another artist two years ago.

Over the years, he was able to return home occasionally to visit his parents.

And as Vargas learned new techniques and experimented with new media, his father continued to paint in his own primitive style, placing on canvas the scenes of his homeland.

Two years ago, Eugenio and Esther, Vargas's mother, were able to leave Cuba and move to Miami with his sister.

To celebrate the new start, Vargas had a special show in his gallery last year, allowing the father and son art to be displayed side by side.

"I wanted to give the opportunity for him to feel like he does something good with his life," he said of the now-73-year-old patriarch. "Besides that, he's really good."

Translating Eugenio's Spanish over a phone call from Miami, Vargas said his dad is very humble about his influence.

"He said, what happened was natural to show me (how to paint), like a father always teaches his son," the son translated.

The art show, he added, was a great way to start a new life. "He said, he was inspired. It gives him more energy to get through the new world," Vargas translated, adding that the moment gave the father a chance to delve deeper into art in a country where supplies are easier to find.

After decades of giving away his paintings as gifts and considering his work a hobby, Eugenio was tickled to sell his first pieces, and Vargas continues to sell his paintings at the Norcross gallery.

But more than that, the father-son show gave the men another chance to bond over the craft they both love.

"He said, it was very important because we don't get together for a long time," Vargas translated his father's words. "He's so happy to see what I have done.

"In one word, he feels very proud."