erry Arena, whose large-scale installation received the Board of Director’s Award at this year’s Baja Biennial, lives in the rich agricultural region of Ventura, California, where she teaches the fundamentals of visual art. Her most recent work, meticulous representations of deceased honey bees rendered onto repurposed food tins, dwells in that mysterious region in between the corporeal and the ethereal. Given the work’s subject matter, i.e., Colony Collapse Disorder and the potential prostration of the agricultural industry, one would assume that the primary emotive response from viewers would be anxiety. However, whatever spectral status is hinted by the gray edges of the graphite, it is quickly recruited to aid contemplation – not mourning. In lieu of an obituary and a dirge, Arena offers aesthetic respite and reconciliation. Fittingly, the recent inclusion of magnifying glasses in her installations serves to further invite patrons to literally pause and observe that which is most fragile and fleeting in today’s commercially oriented intensive farming.
Born in Georgia and raised in rural North San Diego County, where “most of the land was covered with avocado and citrus groves,” Arena seems to have been predestined to unravel the thorny paradoxes of contemporary food culture and the idiosyncrasies of modern agricultural practices. Growing up in a rural town that had “a post office and one stop sign,” she spent much of her bucolic youth on horseback, “riding over miles and miles of trails and occasionally swiping oranges and tangerines.” Before going off to college, she considered the idea of running a training stable as she was quite familiar with the demanding equestrian sport of dressage. She earned her Bachelor’s in Art Education at Cal State Long Beach and her Master’s in Painting at Cal State Northridge. It was there while struggling with a painting that Arena had her breakthrough and switched to graphite, realizing that the newly preferred medium directed her “to a more effective place conceptually.”
Her previous solo exhibits have included Culinary Inheritance Revisited at UCLA and Generally Recognized as Safe at Moorpark and Ventura College. Having been included in numerous museum and gallery group exhibits in Southern California, Arena in 2014 had a solo exhibit at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. In the same year, she’d start the project known as “Symbiotic Crisis” where she “began making drawings on metal and installing them in varying clusters or swarms.” Partly by design and partly on a whim, Arena with the help of her husband presented the first three of the installations in a converted box truck parked at several predetermined locations, LA’s Chinatown, Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station, and Culver City. The experience was an eye-opener: “It was just really interesting [to] learn what kind of people go to the different art neighborhoods. . . . It was probably one of the best things I’ve done ever.”
This interview took place on the 10th of November, less than two days after Trump’s electoral victory, at Arena’s cozy Ventura County home, where she lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter. In person, she is exceedingly generous and possessed of a disarming vulnerability. She is also funny and her passion for her craft is sincere and familial. Standing by a dining room wall adorned with family photographs, Arena singled out the portrait of her grandmother, noting that it was indeed her grandmother’s dishes that became the impetus for her recipe themed drawings. You can learn more about her work at terryarena.me.
Entropy: How would you describe your art? It could be characterized as representational art, photorealistic drawings, still-life with graphite. And, of course, it’s fine art, but your work also delves into conceptual art or maybe even activist art.
Arena: I would classify it similarly. Maybe socially aware contemporary still life. I don’t want to take a strong role in terms of activism, but I want to participate in a dialogue about contemporary issues.
Entropy: Are you using bee photos or actual bees for reference?
Arena: Both. I collect my own specimens, but my family and friends also bring me all these dead things; birds, bees, seeds, etc… I keep them in containers in the freezer and when I need a model, that’s where I go. Because the bees are so small, I use a digital microscope and a lot of different magnifying utensils so I can see the most minute details.
Entropy: I’ve never heard of refrigerating your subjects.
Arena: Yes, freezing and refrigerating is helpful. I learned this after I had gathered some objects from my friends’ yard and came across a fig that a bird had partially eaten. It was beautiful. The initial composition included both the part eaten fig and a branch with another fig attached. I had to draw the partially consumed fig first because it was deteriorating quickly. Although I kept the branch in water and refrigerated it, it began to wilt and shrivel, and it did some strange things that no longer worked for me visually. I couldn’t work fast enough to include it, so I had to omit it. You can only go so fast. Now, I work a lot more from dead things . . . that I store in my freezer.
Entropy: Certain illustrators have told me that it really is the quality of your reference that counts. If your reference is off, e.g., fuzzy, especially if you’re a beginner, the end result won’t be what you want. If it’s a photo, it has to be a good photo.
Arena: I’m not a great photographer so I rely heavily on the actual object. Originally, I would only work from still-life and then there was a shift. I began photographing everything more as insurance in case my cats or my toddler should get into my still life set. When I was making the recipe drawings e.g., butter, milk, or vanilla, I had to shift to photographic references for those items because they just aren’t stable. But it’s still my preference to work from the real deal.
Entropy: It really shows in your work. I was surprised by how I could even get a sense of color just from the way you use value, contrast, and texture . . . especially from a piece like your rendering of the potatoes. I had initially thought that it was in color, and then I looked back at the digital photo and was surprised to learn that it wasn‘t. I’m reminded of how certain beginners will be obsessed with the colors they’re using, but I’ve heard from certain artists that it’s really not the color that matters. If you really want to capture the essence of a subject, you have to capture the values, textures, and contrast.
Arena: Yes, light is so critical. I’d follow along with that or you may just know your potato nuances really well!
Entropy: Once you have the object manipulated in the position that you want it, is it simply a matter of accurately recreating that object?
Arena: I think so. I try to be as honest to the object as I can. I will make some value shifts; once I get far enough along based on what I think the drawing needs. For example, in the recipes I generally install them in the same sequence that occurs in the recipe. So I may shift tones based on the relationship of the drawings to each other to create a bit more movement.
Entropy: I’ve heard from portrait artists that even if the light seems to be coming from the floor in the reference, they’ll generally draw the person’s face with the light coming mostly from the sky – no matter what the original suggests. They’ll shift the light just because it’s aesthetically more pleasing.
Arena: I’ll play around with my light to see what’s interesting, and often it ends up pretty similar. Lately, because I’m working on a series of one hundred drawings I’ve become more of a manufacturer. It’s about quantity and I have become less adventurous in lighting shifts. Side lighting allows me to see and render the form without the use of a cast shadow. Lighting is a fun part of it all though. How does light fall across the object? What interesting features are revealed when the light is moved around. How to create strong form without the cast shadow? The cast shadow is such an aid in making something look really three-dimensional. When you get rid of it, it creates a challenge.
Entropy: Can you define the term? I haven’t really thought about the cast shadow.
Arena: It’s that dark shadow connected to your foot. The shadow that falls upon a ground plane when light hits an object. It really helps define the space in a drawing. So over on that avocado, or any of my drawings for that matter, if you were to place a cast shadow in the piece, it would set it apart from the ground plane more obviously. Not using a cast shadow presents an issue, because the space becomes ambiguous. In some of my pieces you can sense that there is a plane, and with some of the others people have told me: “Oh no, I’ve always understood the object was in the air or existing somehow in space.”
Entropy: Features like the absence of the cast shadow is, I think, why I hesitated to call your work “fine art.” A lot of people automatically associate the term, especially with pencil, with dog portraits on Etsy and Ebay. And your work is obviously not that. Why graphite?
Arena: Earlier on, I was making still-life drawings of fruits and vegetables. I was inspired by the Slow Food movement and the idea of being more conscientious about organics, the benefits or detriments of GMOs and homemade meals rather than processed foods. And so farming and gardening all came into focus with that visceral feeling of digging in the earth. Initially I thought farming to be a simplistic task, but as I read more I realized how complex food propagation was. In my foray into authors like Pollan and Singer they describe the complexities of farming as an elegant balance of elements. Graphite on paper was a way to try to connect to that idea, elegant simplicity. Of course, color is very luscious and seductive. But I was trying to get down to the very basics. . .
Entropy: My understanding is that it’s much more time-consuming with color pencils, because it’s less forgiving.
Arena: I think that’s relative depending on the artist. I work really slowly.
Entropy: Using graphite seems to be an inherently slow process, especially if you want it to be accurate.
Arena: I’m much faster now. It’s really interesting to me how early on, when obviously you’re at the beginning stages of a process, you’re still learning what you’re doing. So, it’d be anywhere from 10 to 40 hours to complete a drawing. I would work my lightest values up to the darkest very meticulously. So, it was very, very slow. I would not use an eraser, and I would do everything just with the pencil. Now, however, I’m working on metal surfaces painted with Gesso and I allow myself to use blending stumps and erasers. What surprised me was that the graphite goes darker much more quickly on these surfaces. So, I actually only use a small range of pencils like a 4h to a 2B; and before I would use all the pencils from 4H to 8B at some point or another. I prime the metal surface, and then Gesso it with many layers. And I sand it to a very smooth, pock-free surface. I’ve never investigated as to why it happens the way it does, but it takes the material and goes dark much faster.
Entropy: This is the first time that I’ve noticed that you’re not going super dark.
Arena: I think it’s the nature of graphite. You’re only going to get it so dark, because it just doesn’t go black – it goes very dark gray. You’d have to go in with a carbon pencil or charcoal to get that really deep black color.
Entropy: And I’m assuming given how small your subjects are that it’d be impossible to do this with, say, charcoal.
Arena: I don’t know. I am familiar with artists that can achieve fine detail with carbon pencil. I explored charcoal, but the material didn’t attach to the prepared metal. I would assume the surfaces are just too smooth.
Entropy: Can you explain Gesso?
Arena: Gesso is actually a primer for making paintings. And it’s just used to prepare the surface for paint, it helps preserve the canvas. When I was first experimenting, I was actually testing out lots of different kinds of paint from spray paint to Gesso. Because jar tops have a lot of texture to them, you get a lot of brush marks with Gesso which meant I was doing an extraordinary amount of sanding. But I like color and feel of the surface. My prep work got much more manageable when I found spray Gesso. There is still a lot of sanding, but it is more quickly satisfying now.
Entropy: Is part of the goal of the Gesso process to make the metal surface the texture of paper?
Arena: It ends up being very smooth more like a yupo paper or matte porcelain. This [holding a jar top] is pretty close to being worked on. I was sanding so much just to get the tiny surfaces ready to draw on, it was draining. So, the spray Gesso really helped my process and it takes the graphite nicely.
Entropy: So, the sanding gets rid of the peaks and valleys?
Arena: Yes. With the spray paint there’s always a little bit of tooth. But the wet/dry sanding will always make it a nice, smooth surface.
Entropy: Do you use a solvent to blend?
Arena: No, mostly just the pencil itself and occasionally the blending stump on the wings of the bees.
Entropy: And you’re not spraying anything on top of the final end-result?
Arena: Not the drawings on paper [pointing]. I do with the drawings on metal because I got reprimanded by a friend: “You have to put something on top of these or someone’s going to smudge them!” I move them around enough that I finally caved. I did some research and asked around about how to stabilize them . . . It does make my life a little bit easier when you’re giving them to other people to hang.
Entropy: I remember in middle school how they’d tell us to spray our artwork with hairspray. But I’ve heard that’s actually not a good idea.
Arena: If it’s an important drawing, then use the spray fixative. But if you’re fixing something in your sketch book, then go ahead and use what you have.
Entropy: Of course, graphite isn’t as messy as something like charcoal. But you do use paper to minimize smudging?
Arena: Yes, I keep glassine underneath my hand. . . . It’s a waxy archival paper so that it doesn’t shift the graphite. I imagine with charcoal it must move it a little bit just because charcoal is so loose.
Entropy: With these [bee renderings] you’re using a magnifying glass?
Arena: I’ve upgraded to a digital microscope. I project it on the computer and work with a big magnifying lens so that I can see what’s what as I draw.
Entropy: Much of your current work relies on aids. Will you ever do without the aids?
Arena: With this size, no, not anymore. The bees are just too small. Before I got my magnifiers dialed in I was having shoulder issues and pretty serious eye problems…my vision would “kaleidoscope” and then black out. Now with my new tools, easel, and chiropractor, I’m all set physically. The other thing I’ve started to do with this series is to display them with monocles so the viewer can get in close to the work. That adds some pressure for me, to make sure the drawings are still strong under scrutiny. On the bigger things and three dimensional work, yeah, I let go of the visual aids.
Image Credit: EMS / Eric Minh Swenson
Entropy: How long does it take you to finish, say, one of these bee pieces?
Arena: The bees go faster because they’re small, maybe three hours total. Once I’m actually into the value work – one to 20 hours depending on the day and the subject matter.
Entropy: So, you don’t do freehand?
Arena: The first step is freehand on the tracing paper, and then transfer to the final. I used to keep all the contour drawings, but I stopped doing that. I also used to keep all my pencil shavings, which [laughter] I don’t do either. I [was] creating a really hellish world . . . All of it [was] really obsessive and really time-consuming.
Entropy: [Laughter] What was the thinking behind keeping the shavings?
Arena: I was sharpening the pencils so much, and these beautiful things would come out. So, I was intrigued . . . There is an underlying idea and feeling about time in the work. So, those remnants were a visual representation of what was happening. One pile was growing, while the pencil was shrinking. And they were sculpturally interesting. I also had the notion that the tracing paper and shavings were further representations of the original inspiration of simple methodologies and the cyclic nature of things. Also, putting each part of an object to use, if you will…referring back to the food cycle of growing, feeding, composting.
Entropy: For clarification, you first find the reference and then freehand, trace . . .
Arena: Yes, I have or find the real objects for reference and then make the contour on tracing paper. And then I do all my values at that point.
Entropy: Do you generally save your freehand drawings?
Arena: I used to keep it all, but it was no longer working with the rest of my life. Family and traditional work can shift priorities. I do have many of the tracing paper drawings, but not all. I keep a sketchbook and that is where I figure out compositions and make studies of my potential subjects.
Entropy: One misconception about this initial part of the process is that you’re simply just replicating what you see, but you are subtracting information from the original?
Arena: Yes. There is a lot of negative space in my work.
Entropy: After the freehand stage, how long does it take you to decide that you’re going to spend X-amount of hours on a final rendering?
Arena: I don’t know the answer to that one. For example, I have plans to make a drawing of blackberries from my yard and though I’ve made quite a few drawings, I still haven’t gotten to the execution part yet. It varies depending on my life schedule. . . . For that one [pointing], I’d say that I have at least five composition studies and probably over 35 photographs that I took of the tree- just trying to sort things out and to see what was interesting. The time issue can seem cumbersome when you want to finish a task, but I usually get intrigued by some little oddity in my subject. And I’m talking minutia, like the angle of a bee’s leg or how the head of drying lavender tilts. It’s ridiculous.
So, I can’t answer that in terms of real time, because my time is not consistent anymore. I used to have eight to ten hour stretches of working. And, then, I would refrigerate my subject and come back the next day for more. I had to work very quickly before it would decay. That doesn’t fit into my life anymore.
Entropy: Was it clear at an early age that you had a talent for drawing?
Arena: No, I’m a hard worker. Growing up, I definitely did draw and dabble in creative things. My first venture into art was photography at the junior college level. And, then, I went into sculpture.
Entropy: That late?
Arena: I took an art class in high school, but it was kind of a joke. The teacher was the stereotypical crazy art lady, and you could do whatever you wanted and get an A. But it was in the photography class that I got interested in art. Later, I decided to go into art education. I was more involved in the three-dimensional stuff: ceramics, bronze, sculpture, and jewelry. I thought that was the path I was going to follow. And somewhere along the way, I had this really amazing drawing teacher – and it finally made sense to me. Values finally clicked; whatever we did in that class made sense to me. The formula was revealed to me . . .
Entropy: Are there “rules” from that time that you still sort of follow? Like the rule of thirds?
Arena: [Laughter] I do teach them, but not really… aside from how to see and render values. Some of the early rules, I don’t think about anymore. It just kind of happens. Because my current work is predominantly solitary objects without any clear reference to space, I’d say it’s a departure from what you’re supposed to do. I’ll realize now and again when I’m working with my students that some of these things I naturally do. It’s not like a checklist anymore.
Entropy: In terms of an art practice now, what are you teaching?
Arena: It shifts a lot year to year. It depends on what’s happening with my students. I am addressing composition a little bit more actively now. And I think that has shown more successful results. I talk about the “art tricks.” I call them “tricks.” My students are often stuck on the notion of only gifted artists having a shot at success. I think technique and practice goes a long way… and well, “tricks” sounds more fun like the reveal of a magic trick. I will take my students through, say, formulas of light and dark, i.e., if this side of the object is light and you want to push it forward, you make the background darker potentially. If you’re not getting enough three-dimensionality, you can darken a cast shadow under the object. I would like my students to be as successful as possible so their confidence builds. They are more brave when they have a few tricks under their belts.
Today I sent them out of class to photograph some compositional strategies. Today was depth, i.e., foreground, middle ground, and background. So, I gave them a generic overview of the concept, and sent them out to take photographs of it. Occasionally, I might throw other tasks in the exercise, e.g., try to tell a story or use a figure, just to bring other possibilities into the conversation. What I’ve found this year is that making a photograph of these strategies helps them understand it much more immediately than if they are required to do a drawing of it. It’s a fast exercise where they only have to focus on one task. Undertaking a drawing or painting can be overwhelming because you have to create everything and navigate the technical parts, too.
Entropy: It sounds ideal.
Arena: Right now I’m liking it. I’ve never done this before ever. And we do it once a month where they go out and take photos. They just completed a still-life project. They created the still life and chose the medium, e.g., painting, drawing, whatever. And the work was much more successful, much more dynamic; they had good depth, alternative viewpoints – it wasn’t this boring thing. I’m feeling positive about this experience for the moment. Again, I just want them to be as successful as possible.
A lot of artmaking, I think, for them is very intimidating. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to share it for fear of not being good enough. And it makes sense because there is a lapse in art education somewhere between elementary and high school. So, the faster I can give them a little bit of confidence, the better. I hit representational art immediately; value work, perspective, and the figure. Those are my three big ones. And I’ll sprinkle in abstraction between those, because there will always be those kids who are innately more capable and accepting of abstraction, much more mentally able – they believe in abstraction. So many of us don’t. It can make people uncomfortable.
Entropy: [Laughter] Or in my case, I just kind of gave up on it – at least in terms of collecting pencils and inks. I’ve noticed a lot of students struggle with spending more time looking at the reference rather than their drawing. I have a vivid memory of your class where we’d go outside and we were told just to look at, say, the tree that we were drawing and not look at our paper.
Arena: [Laughter] Oh, contour lines.
Entropy: In a contour line drawing, the final rendering might not be totally accurate. But often it was much more interesting than not.
Arena: I still use that one, too. Students hate it.
Entropy: [Laughter] Yes, I’m sure they do hate it.
Arena: They hate it until someone does something really amazing. It takes some time but my favorite thing ever is when that student, who thus far has never had a good experience with art, slows down enough to actually relax into blind contour. And all of a sudden these amazingly, not profound, but whimsical, charismatic drawings come out of them. All of a sudden, they’re a superstar and they think it’s the coolest thing ever. I love blind contour for that.
Entropy: I think sometimes students, especially beginners, struggle with wanting to challenge themselves too much. If your aim is to quickly reproduce the Mona Lisa, you’re kind of setting yourself up to fail in an unproductive way. But all of these tricks, e.g., line contour drawing, flipping the reference backward, forces you to slow down. . . . The day before the election, I actually used one of your pieces, the heirloom tomato, as a drawing reference. In doing the freehand, I was reminded of how graphite and trying to do representational art slows you down. It’s kind of like therapy, it just takes your mind off of other crazy things that are not in your control.
Arena: Time or slowness is absolutely an underlying theme in my work. It’s a meditation for me, because I’m so intimately engaged with this minute thing, at least with the bees. It’s definitely a meditation: doing one thing at a time and slowness is kind of where the pleasure of it all is. And this also relates to the concept of that initial inspiration of Slow Foods… slowing down our methods in growing food, honoring where it came from, considering sustainable methods and putting good food in your body that your body was designed to process. The bee works honor the bee and its integral role in the environment and, for those that need a monetary valuation, in a billion-dollar industry dominated by California.
Entropy: Yes, I had an issue as I was preparing for this interview. It’s much easier to talk about the materials than talking about the themes in your work; I didn’t want to introduce jargon into the conversation. I did my Master’s at an art school and there was a lot of jargon as you probably know. And some kids liked it. I liked it at the time. Were you ever tempted by all that French theory stuff?
Arena: [Laughter] Like Derrida and stuff like that?
Entropy: Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari . . .
Arena: I didn’t care much for Derrida. I read a lot in school also, but I think I’m just more practical and simple. When I wrote my thesis I had to bring it back to theorists to validate my line of study and there were relationships drawn, but it’s not my natural way of being. For me, it’s too much putting on a show for somebody else. I enjoy it a lot more now when I’m contemplating something and then I research from one place to the next to the next . . . I’ll come across some theory and I’ll enjoy it as I’m more invested.
Entropy: In terms of future plans are you thinking of moving into other mediums, e.g., acrylic, or is graphite pretty much set in stone?
Arena: No, I don’t think anything’s set in stone, but the medium should have some purpose in the work. I’ve been doing it for a long time and there’s still a future with graphite for me. I am a goal-oriented kind of person, it’s sometimes hard to let go of an idea so I would like to complete the projects I have in the works. But I’m definitely venturing towards three-dimensional things, i.e., dealing with those bell jars. I’m starting to incorporate those in my installations. I’m in a state of play right now with three-dimensional things and natural objects, larger works and paint is on the horizon. I’d like to leave it at that.