Jean Arena has worked in art her entire career. From high-profile advertising jobs to deeply personal paintings, such as the one on our cover depicting her grandkids, Arena has a great deal of range. See more of her work at Westhampton Free Library on Saturday, July 20 and Sunday, July 21 as part of the Art Studio Tour, and see a solo show of her paintings at the Remsenburg Academy, from August 16–September 2. An opening reception is scheduled for August 16.
What was the inspiration for this piece?
The ocean has always inspired me. It is so large and we are so small. The ocean doesn’t really change and neither do the people that come to it. In the summer, you can always see people having a great time challenging the waves. These three kids happen to be my grandchildren and it reminded me of my sister and my cousins doing the same thing years ago—loving it, the fun and excitement and also that underlying bit of a scary feeling when a very big wave is coming at us!
How did you get started in art?
I was always drawing and one day my father brought me a wooden artist’s box. Inside were paints, brushes…everything I needed to try painting. I worked at the kitchen table and copied from art books. My first painting was of a little boy and girl sharing a bowl of chocolate outside with a beautiful shaft of light coming down on them. I think it was a painting by Murillo. From there, I studied.
I have a BA in Art from Rosemont College, then studied Film and Advertising at The School of Visual Arts. Next, faux painting and gilding At The Isabel O’Neill Studio in New York and at the Tania Vartan Academy in Florence. After retiring form advertising, for six years I studied painting at The Art Students League of New York with Tom Torak, Sharon Sprung, Mary Beth McKenzie, Dan Gheno and Cornelia Foss.
Talk about your experience working for Young & Rubicam.
I felt so lucky to be at Y&R since it was one of the most creative agencies at the time and I was working for two very talented TV art supervisors and I learned a lot from them. There were lots of creative young people my age and we were all happy to be working there, even if it meant many late nights. The agency had large clients with large TV budgets.
Soon, I was filming a shampoo commercial in LA and another with a famous basketball player in Cincinnati. The job was competitive, challenging and rewarding. But I left when I was offered a position at another agency by someone I had known at Y&R. After a number of years, I went back at Y&R for another 13 years. I worked with some people I knew from before and I felt at home again creating commercials for The US Army, Dr. Pepper, KFC and Barbie.
How does your painting work differ from the advertising work?
They are both creative, but very different in many ways. The scope is different. In advertising, the scope is focused on the product and who the target is. As a painter I have to rely on myself for guidance. I paint what inspires me—a person, a scene, colors, forms, beauty a cause—anything that prompts a feeling and makes me want to capture and share that feeling. In advertising I worked with a writer to create an idea, a message to people that they would identify with and feel good about on some level.
To do this we worked with research people who help create the strategy. And many people up the agency ladder both Creative and Management comment on your work before you present it to the client. Most of the time there are changes to be made—some good, some bad. Even if the client likes it, there are focus groups!
And if they don’t like it? It’s doomed. But if they like it you get to produce it. That’s when you work with a director, producer, actors, music people, an editor, etc., all approved by the client and agency, and in the end you have a commercial.
In painting, I work alone. I keep looking at my painting to figure out what’s bothering me Is it the composition, a color I need to change, and the light? I can leave it for a while or ask my husband what he thinks. Eventually, sometimes even months later, somehow I figure out what do.
The end result has similarities. In advertising, if your commercial is on the air and people like it and the clients reach their goal and the agency is happy and you are respected in the ad community, you can feel good about what you accomplished.
It is a lot like being in an art show where if people comment favorably about your painting and maybe even someone buys it and lovingly puts it in their home and now it has a nice place instead of sitting in your studio, and so then you feel good about it.
What’s it like living in Remsenburg?
Timing is the thing. And for me and my husband the time was right to leave the crowds and noise of Manhattan and live in the peace and quiet Remsenburg. It’s a small place between Eastport and Westhampton, very picturesque, and very nice people. There are community events and there’s the post office to get your mail since we don’t have home delivery, we do have a very good elementary school, a community church and the academy where we hold meetings and art Shows. And my son’s family lives here so I get to see my grandchildren grow up right before my eyes. What could be better?
How does living on Long Island inform your work?
Out here you have great big beautiful scenes of nature, ocean beaches, sky, farms, inlets, marshes with incredible light that make you want to paint. Also the scenes of school buses, kids, farm stands, animals, gardens, villages and people living their everyday lives. I have so many possibilities as to what I want to paint next.
For more work by Jean Arena, visit jeanarenapaintings.com.