An interview with the artist: Terry Arena

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10451021_736508626421338_4105695991092781916_n I would love to hear about your background. Where did you go to school? How did your life as an artist lead to drawing? 

 In 2007 I took a year- long sabbatical from my job as a high school art teacher and went back to school for my master’s at CSU, Northridge. I think in helping my students prepare portfolios for college I became inspired to take a risk and expand my own experience. It was a scary decision for me financially, to not have a “real” income for a year, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Honestly, the drawings began while I was struggling with a painting. I decided to do a study in graphite to try to separate from the problem and gain some objectivity. That was it. I kept making the drawings because graphite carried the work to a more effective place conceptually.  I still made paintings after that but there came a time when I moved completely into graphite. The drawings take quite some time to make and it seems there is never enough time to do everything.

Tell me about your recent work? One project you worked on was using recipes and now it is bees, how are they connected, or not?

My recent work is about colony collapse disorder in bees. It was an obvious move for the work because as I was reading about food production, genetically processed organisms (GMO’s), and food ethics, I heard an interview that reported how bee colonies were being trucked around to farmlands to pollinate areas where the bee populations were in decline. The vanishing of the bees is a critical issue because bees play an integral role in pollinating crops. For example, California is the world’s largest producer of almonds, which is a crop that relies on honeybees for pollination.  It is a billion dollar industry. At that point, I knew I would bring bees into the work because it was so closely related to my previous work about contemporary food culture.

In regard to the recipe pieces, they originated from observing my students and their eating patterns at school.  I saw lots of processed snack foods and energy drinks and fewer natural foods or homemade lunches. I became more and more aware of a shift in how we take our meals. It seemed that everyone was eating some kind of nutrition bar or eating in their cars and there was a decline in regularly shared meals. I questioned whether all these meal shortcuts were really beneficial. In our fast paced, media driven, overscheduled culture might it be more satisfying and healthful to sit down and enjoy a meal and a little conversation? I felt a little sad that the family meal at the dinner table might be going by the wayside. The recipe pieces acknowledge this perceived cultural shift. I render the ingredients of recipes that have been passed to me by family and friends, some of which are a few generations old. The work documents cooking from scratch, with simple ingredients and simple tools. I make the drawings in a similar way by working from life with basic pencil and paper.

All my work is related in some way, to food. For the recipe and colony collapse projects, I feel there is a unifying sense of loss and also wonderment. It is truly fascinating to me to consider these shifts, as in fewer home cooked meals at the table with family to individual ready-made meals on the fly.  I question whether this relates to the rise of childhood obesity and diabetes. In 2008, Time magazine dedicated an issue to the topic. With the bees and colony collapse, the story is still unfolding and the impact not yet fully known.  Researchers have theorized about cell towers, mites, pesticides, and monoculture farming. A fascinating thing is that there are separate theories that blame high fructose corn syrup for problems with our youth…and the decline of the bees. From what I’ve read, none of these theories have been definitively proven, but I find them interesting nonetheless.

big honeycomb

Who are your influences?

My influences ebb and flow depending on what I’ve been seeing and reading. In terms of old dead guys, Morandi is always interesting to me. The negative spaces in his work carry a tension and an intimacy that I find captivating. Gale Antokal’s The Messengers has also had a lasting impact on me. In my studio, I have postcards and lists of artists like Melissa Cooke, Cheryl Ann Thomas, Ray Turner, Ernest Pignon Ernest, Tim Ebner and others. As I said, the influence is ever changing.  I also find inspiration in music and reading outside of the art context. When I first began my work about food, Michael Pollan gave me a lot to think about and then I found Marion Nestle, Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I think as artists we are constantly being influenced by our experience, sometimes it makes its way into the work directly and sometimes it doesn’t.


What do you want to accomplish with the mobile installation? What do you hope will come out of this?

My goal is to see the project through the first installations and to find more opportunities to show the work. I hope to be a part of the dialogue about the bees and their integral role in pollinating our food sources but also the interconnectedness of things. Monoculture farming depletes soil of balanced nutrients and doesn’t provide enough diversity for the local flora and fauna. GMO’s can certainly be designed to ward off harmful pests but may then upset the balance of that pest’s predator and so on. For humans, processed foods make dinner preparation quick but what is the tradeoff of eating such quantities of high fructose corn syrup and the many other chemicals manufactured in the food to keep it “stable”.  I also hope to be a part of the conversation of art making. In a time when we have so many high tech options for every component of our lives, including art, I think there is value in simple approaches and simple materials. This is not to say the work is simple. When I find work that requires slow looking I feel compelled to do so, like a short meditation. For me, this is a satisfying experience. I hope that my work can provide some quiet moments for slow looking.

Thank you to Terry Arena for a wonderful, enlightening and powerful interview! Be sure to come out to Bergamot Station on Saturday October 18th from 4-6 to talk to Terry about the Symbiotic Crisis and check out her intricate, beautiful drawings in person.


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