For the thirty-three year old Colombian artist Dairo Vargas, putting a smile on a child’s face is not just the occasional nod to charity, but a lifetime personal commitment. From his early years, his mother encouraged him to give and together they would visit youngsters affected by severe poverty, homelessness, abuse and crime in the capital city of Bogota and other Colombian towns. They would spend hours with the children, play with them and offer them gifts of toys, food and clothes.

As Vargas has gone on to become a graphic designer and painter, he’s kept up the passion to offer his skills and efforts for this delicate cause. Even living in London since 2005, he annually raises money in creative ways to help give to the La Escaltera kindergarten in Agrado which educates some 80 underprivileged children.

He said: “The Christmas parties for the little ones are always a big hit. We would bring them things as little as ice-cream and balloons which they love, to buying them more books and educational equipment for their future development.”

It is a sad and difficult truth that deprived, impoverished and hurt children are to be found everywhere in the world. As synchronicity would have it, last November, when Vargas was attending a Firecracker Event in Yorkshire, he heard a young Barnardo’s girl give a moving speech about her past which prompted him to make direct contact with the charity.

Vargas: “This girl had faced unimaginable things in her life but had so much strength to recover from the abuse she suffered. It’s unbelievable to think what some children have to go through. But now she has her own family and a job. It’s good to know that what happened in her childhood isn’t shaping her future, she is.”

The project with Barnardo’s has turned into the current exhibition – ‘A Thousand Words’ – at the Reading Room Gallery, Soho. Vargas dedicated much of the year to make the seventeen paintings on display and volunteered to teach Art lessons to Barnardo’s students at the High Close School in Berskshire that proved a huge success.

He said: “At first, they were hesitant. But I wanted to reassure them that there is nothing like the perfect image. That doesn’t exist. I wanted them to create their own portraits with confidence in response to my sketches. Art is above all about expression of feelings, emotions and honesty.”

Vargas’s paintings speak volumes on the theme of lost childhood and approach the psychological links between dreams and reality for the children. My favourite is the ‘Chiquita de Rojo’ that is an image of a little girl with a red face and braided hair who seems shy and preoccupied. Half the proceeds of her sale will help give 25 families access to Barnardo’s Advice Phone Line, which helps parents and carers to understand the child’s grief and look at practical ways to support them.

There is also the ‘Dreams’ painting of a black girl surrounded by butterflies. Half the proceeds of her sale will be go to the ‘Leaving Care’ project that provides a range of housing and support for young adults leaving residential, foster or family care. And there is more, including three little sculptures up for a donation amount.

As an artist Vargas has been self-taught although he started early. He confessed that as a fourteen year old that he always found himself doing his brothers’ and friends’ art homework and helping with the school murals. He said: “This was the best practice I ever got. But I was still afraid I wouldn’t get a job as an artist, so I studied graphic design and marketing instead. I even worked with JWT in Bogota for some time.”

But then he wanted to travel and came to London to learn English. Although art wasn’t big on the agenda and the plan was to stay for only nine months, he found himself taking out the colours and acrylics in his suitcase. He started to sketch and painted anything he could find of intrigue and even used cardboard to work with. After with some more money he was able to buy bigger canvasses and this gave him the push to study at Kensington and Chelsea College of Art circa 2008.

Since he has committed to being a full-time artist and works right through the nights, finding lots of inspiration especially from William Turner and a love for depicting natural landscapes and studying light movement. This is his true calling and his work has been exhibited in London, Europe and Colombia. On his website, one can see the broader scope of his art portfolio and developing technique.

For the future Vargas tells me: “I now want to focus more on conceptual images and the abstract world. One of my current projects, The City, is all about the energy of big cities where I look at human movement and activity as well as links to the different buildings and architecture.

“For me, cities are like a positive virus where there is chaos but also beauty and order. They are also more alive than one thinks and London in particular has this incredible feel to it. I love it even with the weather, as I come from a hot country. I hope to stay for as long as I can and then maybe move on to New York, another place I find fascinating and worth exploring.”

For more information on Dairo Vargas:
To donate to Barnardo’s charity:

Note: This article was first published circa November 2011