Terry Arena: Not Just Bees
Carnegie Art Museum Studio Gallery
By Jennifer Susan Jones
It seems fitting that the Oxnard, California Farmer’s Market is held directly across the parking lot from Terry Arena’s latest exhibit. For in this exhibit, titled “Not Just Bees,” Arena shows us the perilous state of the symbiotic relationship between the small but (somewhat) mighty pollinators and our increasingly threatened food sources.
Arena has been creating realistic and patiently-rendered pencil drawings of various food-related subjects for ten years, and in her latest series, she has delicately (and with a superbly sharp pencil akin to that of a sewing needle) produced life-size representations of such diverse subjects as a bird skeleton, a nectarine tree branch bending with ripe fruit, and of course, the stalwart in spirit (but unfortunately fragile) honeybee, rendered in exquisite detail in positions ranging from an energetic mid-flight buzz, to a broken body, crash-landed and quiet, like a helpless tiny airplane.
The bees have been vanishing, and although studies have been conducted, the causes of the declines in bee populations (pesticides, mites, climate change) are not yet definitive. Terry Arena hopes to bring awareness of this issue to the public via her elegant drawings and installations, which she creates by honorably devoting her time and talents to tenderly render realistic likenesses of an insect that is often unfairly feared – and indeed quite misunderstood – in our current, “insectophobic” culture.
So why are the bees in danger? To understand the honey bee’s unique fragility one must first receive a brief lesson in the complex, perfectly balanced social structure of the society in which bees thrive; that tightly-knit, hexagonically constructed castle, known simply to us as “the hive.” In a healthy hive, the system operates much like it would in a functional human town: each bee has its job, and each bee dutifully carries out the daily tasks of that job.
In a relevant excerpt from the 2008 text by Michael Schacker titled ‘A Spring Without Bees,’ these roles are listed as follows: “Besides the all-important nurse bees, there are the guard bees, the heating and cooling teams, the cleaning squads, comb-builders and honey processors, and of course, the foraging worker bees. All these bees are sisters, daughters of the same mother queen bee.” And let us not forget the male bees, the stingless drones, who eat, and eat, until they mate with the queen, and die (when their genitals snap off).
All the bees, in effect, work together so the hive functions smoothly (picture a complicated, well-oiled machine). The bees’ role in this system is even reflected in their DNA. For example, bees are excellent at learning and smelling, traits that can assist them in seeking flowers and returning successfully to the hive. Additionally, bees have fewer genes related to detoxification and immunity because the nurse bees in their hive function to take care of each one of their fuzzy, incoming peers. This weaker immunity leaves the bees susceptible to powerful, human-engineered pesticides that are too robust for a nurse bee to merely scrub away with her busy and determined little legs.
The unfortunate truth is that Apis mellifera (the main honey bee species) has an inherent weakness against disease; they are not able to easily fight off new viruses and pathogens and as a result, if some hive members take ill, the whole hive will soon be infected. This massive hive death, also known as colony collapse disorder, can come about via other means as well, including a hive-infestation of mites that kill embryonic bees, and climate change which affects bee habitats. The research puts forth varying hypotheses, but most believe the problem has multiple factors.
Arena’s latest works, titled collectively “Symbiotic Crisis,” bring these distressing truths to light in a subtle and beautiful way, by means of exquisite drawings patiently placed atop gessoed food tin lids and repurposed food trays. The fact that these drawings are in black and white seems to deliver the subconscious message that if we are not careful, these subjects will succumb forever, ultimately existing only as delicate specimens in museums, the colors fading out of them as time pollutes our once vibrant memories of them.
One well-known and particularly troublesome thorn in the pollinator’s side is a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which, according to a February 2017 article in the New York Times, “are widely used to kill off aphids and other bugs. Some studies tie them to the declining health of bees and a drop in the populations of birds that depend on those insects for food. In 2013, the European Union and several countries in other areas placed limits on the use of those insecticides.”
In the same article, America’s largest beekeeper, Bret Adee, states (regarding neonicotinoids), “The more you study it, the more obvious it becomes: the relationship between the pesticides that have been sprayed everywhere over the last 10 years and what’s happening to bees.” Demand is high for Mr. Adee’s bees partly because of colony collapse, which has hit the nation’s bee population hard in the last ten years.
On her website, Arena states pertinent data relating to the impetus behind her work: “The growth of one-third of the crops we eat are supported by pollination from honeybees. This is to include direct consumables such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts and indirectly in the crops that are grown to facilitate the production of meat and dairy products. The role of the honeybee is so integral to crop propagation, bees are transported by trucks to farmlands in need of pollination.”
As the title of this exhibition suggests, it’s not just the bees who are suffering due to human impact. A March 2016 article in Fast Company stated that “sixteen percent of vertebrate pollinators, like birds and bats, are also facing possible extinction.”
And Arena is helping to tell this tragic story in her own subtle, yet impactful and tasteful way. For example, the off-center placement of her subjects on their circular, gessoed surfaces gives the graphite renderings a haphazard feel, thus effectively capturing what could be any given moment in the dynamic lives of these vulnerable subjects. It is as if Arena swept her camera slowly back and forth, over a garden or piece of farmland, snapping photos of her subjects just as they exist – unposed – and in all states of life, death, and decay. And the fact that these renderings are all grey on white, gives them a paleontological essence reminiscent of both bone and ice, subconsciously giving the viewer an experience of looking at creatures frozen in chilly permanence, frozen in a simultaneously foreign and familiar (then and now) place in time.
The style of the installation (the patterning of the circular tins, the way they drift across the wall space, and cluster at one end) mirrors the flight pattern of bees, scoring points once again that help chalk this exhibition up to an overall elegant, understated, and highly educational experience.
Not Just Bees was on exhibit May 5th to June 10th, 2017, at the Carnegie Art Museum Studio Gallery, 329 N. 5th Street, Oxnard, CA 93030.