I’d like to introduce you to someone with a truly incredible story of overcoming adversity and appreciating the abilities of all people. I’ve never met the subject of this story, but we could all learn something from her.
I’ve worked for the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau for almost four years. Our office is situated in historic downtown Natchitoches, in a small stucco and brick building built in the early 20th century. For the first 40 years of that century, it was occupied by an artist with incredible talent.
Mary Belle de Vargas was born without arms. Growing up, she taught herself to use her toes and feet to accomplish nearly any task. She could brush her hair, unlock doors with a key, thread a needle, and was even certified in First Aid. She graduated from Louisiana State Normal (now Northwestern State University) and opened her own art studio along Front Street in the building my office currently occupies. It was here, where she sketched on canvas, while enjoying the cool afternoon breeze from Cane River. Sketches, paintings, cartoons, and portraits hung from every open space on the interior walls.
People from across the country in disbelief of her story, came to Natchitoches to see Mary Belle’s artwork. She passed away in late 1946 from complications of a lengthy cold, not before inspiring and educating people about the abilities of people with disabilities.
Robert DeBlieux, a former mayor of Natchitoches, took art lessons from Mary Belle as a child. He often tells us stories about “the armless marvel” who refused to be treated as anything less than an equal. Mr. Bobby recently loaned the CVB two of Mary Belle’s paintings to display in the lobby. We eagerly share deVargas’ story with visitors who ask about her. Standing in the same room that was once sanctuary for this amazing woman evokes so many emotions. History really does come alive.
Not long after her death, a series of letters between de Vargas and friend Gualterio Quinonas were arranged into a book, The Armless Marvel. You can read the book in its entirety online at www.thearmlessmarvel.com . Mary Belle is certainly one of the most unique of Natchitoches’ plethora of storied residents and her inspirational story can teaches an important lesson. The hardest part about overcoming a disability is often moving past the limitations of other’s perception. Mary Belle proved to those around her that she was no different and in many cases, more capable.
You can read her biography at www.marybelledevargas.com .