Based in Ventura, Calif., Terry Arena recently received the Board of Directors Award at the Southern California/Baja Biennial show in San Diego for her art project of delicately detailed drawings of bees.
The “buzz” around her work notwithstanding, there is something moving and magical in her intense realism, something that draws viewers to contemplate both her message and her medium.
Arena’s meticulous, almost photographically perfect drawings are not all about honeybees and their tragic disappearance. In past years, the artist created a series of drawings based on multi-generational recipes, from the potatoes in “Potato Leek Soup,” a recipe Arena received from her great-grandmother, to her minutely perfected drawings of “Lavender” or “Chives,” the latter image framed as if on a plate. Her recipe drawings are each of a single ingredient, so powerfully portrayed it takes on a symbolic, sustaining value of emotional as well as physical food, as well as remaining a beautiful, intimate, still life.
“Where is our food derived, how it is produced, who benefits economically and otherwise, and what will effect our environment and the health of the population over the long and short-term?” Arena asks, saying that her drawings “…consider ideas of seasonality, genetically modified organisms, homemade meal preparations, and most recently, the plight of the bees.”
Arena’s dedication to ecology focuses on bees, and hums with these incredible insects synergy. She shows us bees through a monocle as beautiful, circular miniatures, fallen bees, bees vibrant in cut paper overlay on graphite, and images such as “Big Honeycomb,” revealing the intricate structure of bee architecture.
“My drawings all start with lots of thumbnail sketches and drawing from life,” the artist reports.
Often working in graphite drawings presented on metal food tins, lids, and other re-purposed materials, using a magnifier to create her focused, minute works, Arena has crafted an hypnotic series dealing with honeybees. In fact, she has 35 works that depict the plight of the honeybees caused by pesticide use.
The ongoing colony collapse is poignantly captured in pieces such as “Two Bees,” both fallen ecological warriors. Her choice of materials that serve as a canvas for her drawings includes lids that once held produce pollinated by honeybees, creating an emotionally as well as literally textured canvas for her work. Sanded and primed, these former lids evoke a bee hive in their exhibition placement, and create in their display a resonant depiction of agriculture’s necessary symbiosis with bees.
So richly detailed, and as small in scale as the bees themselves, Arena’s work pulls viewers into a Lilliputian world, it’s very size an expression of the vulnerability of the honeybee.
“My work considers our relationship with the environment and the impact bees have on our food sources,” Arena notes.
Each drawing is unique and intimate, creating a visceral connection with viewers on the delicate nature of bees themselves as well as her style of drawing.
Raised in a rural area in San Diego County, Arena has memories of citrus and avocado trees, and an early interest in food and agriculture. Her current Ventura residence is also in a community that is focused on these industries. While location has certainly influenced the artist, who draws and photographs the nature around her, Arena’s interest in her subject is deeper than place. She is compelled to create awareness of the honeybees decline, and its effect on plants and fruits that require their pollination. One senses that Colony Collapse Disorder is a real and vital concern for her, not only as an artist but as a mother. Nature’s balance is skewed; and CCD has far reaching generational effects. If she can help save the bees – and us – through her art, Arena wants to try.
The artist states that one third of our crops are supported by honeybee pollination, from directly consumable items such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts to the production of dairy and meat products. “The role of the honeybee is so integral to crop propagation, bees are transported by trucks to farmlands in need of pollination. Recently, the mysterious vanishing of the bees has been covered in public media. Though studies have been conducted, causes of these bee declines are not yet definitive.”
Bringing awareness to this crisis through her potent, magically realistic graphite artwork is Arena’s mission. A teacher as well as an artist, she seeks to educate, illuminate, and inspire viewers as students of nature.
Arena’s “Symbiotic Crisis” honeybee exhibition has been ongoing since 2014. Using a moving truck, the artist has transported her monochrome creations to locations throughout California as well as exhibiting in traditional gallery spaces. She’s often installed her works in bee-inspired clusters or swarms, overlapping drawings, and even working with the reflections and shadows cast from the backs of her metal ‘canvases.’
Arena invites viewers to join her in contemplating their relationship with the environment. Her work has an ethereal quality, but its creation also has roots in historical botanical drawings and nature studies. There is something both urgently realistic and that which exists outside of time in her work, an entwined dichotomy that creates a vital conversation about our daily lives and the potential for catastrophe that teeters throughout the natural world.