A firefighter finds a creative outlet in graphite and charcoal drawings.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Being competitive is what led Vondrel Warren into firefighting, but it was love alone that made him an artist.
“I’m very competitive,” said the 29-year-old Delta-born Warren. “My friend was a firefighter, and I thought, ‘I can do that,’ so I became a firefighter and ended up loving it.”
He’s been with the Clarksdale Fire Department nearly five years, where he’s now a lieutenant. He’s had a close call or two that involved electricity and a near tumble from a ladder. He’s also saved several tree-bound cats.
“The thing about a cat is, they don’t care if you are their hero,” Warren said, laughing. “They relax when you reach out for them in the tree, but when you get them down, they just walk away. They don’t even thank you.”
Oxford is home base for Warren and his wife China, a respiratory therapist, whose job takes her to Grenada and beyond. He works in Clarksdale, near Lyon, the community where he was born.
As a youngster, Warren took a shine to creating stick figures with a No. 2 pencil.
In junior high school and in the gifted program, Warren went through a rebellious phase — instead of focusing on what was being taught in the classroom, he perfected his doodles. And when the teacher caught him not paying attention, he’d get sent out of class. But a teacher who recognized Warren’s potential encouraged him to be attentive in class and find a better time for his drawing.
Warren remembers the first drawing he “sold.” He was working three jobs — teaching art to pre-kindergartners through third graders at Clarksville Collegiate Charter School, fighting fires and working at Roses Express. He did a portrait of a woman and her child.
“She fed me at her restaurant for a week,” Warren said. “With every commission, my drawing got better.”
Warren draws wherever he is — the firehouse, in coffee shops, in the living room of his Oxford condo. His No. 2 pencils have been replaced by graphite pencils and charcoal.
“I’ve tried painting with oils, but it takes so long to dry,” he said. “I’ve tried acrylics, too, but working in color is just different. Pencils have never let me down.”
Still, one lone colored drawing pops sitting among the rest of his work. It’s Warren’s first foray into colored pencils.
“A co-worker in the fire department is a fanatic for shoes, not in a negative way, he just loves Nike Jordans and has a lot,” Warren said. “I did that with him in mind.”
A portrait of his brother-in-law sits nearby, a blend of graphite pencils and charcoal. It takes much more than a passing glance to determine the portrait is, in fact, a Warren original and not a photograph. An unfinished piece rests on an easel. The largest work Warren has done, it’s a self-portrait of the firefighter in his turnout gear, his ax over his shoulder.
He’s pleased with his progress so far, but Warren is also hard on himself.
“I have a habit of short-changing myself,” he said. “I’m never really satisfied. An artist’s work is never done. Even in my stickman days, I kept trying to do something more to them.”