Jean Arena’s passion for painting began at age 13 when she opened a gift from her father, a paint box, and traded in her crayons for oils. It continued at Rosemont College, in Pennsylvania training in the classical method, sketching busts, replicating the works of Renaissance masters, drawing in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and plein air sketching. With her BA and creative talent, Arena-landed a job at the New York-based agency Benton & Bowles, in the “Mad Men” era of explosive growth in advertising.
She spent her evenings at the School of Visual Arts where she took classes in advertising, marketing, and – it being the heyday of television commercials – film. She eventually wound up working at Young & Rubicam, an agency that valued the creative team as much as the account side. There, she had the good fortune to work with the best photographers of the era including Richard Avedon, Hiro, and Sokolsky. From them, she learned the vital importance of lighting.
In the 1980’s, she took a break from full-time work in advertising. She placed a single ad in Art & Antiques magazine for her “Snapshots,” the name she ascribed to her commissioned portrait work, and almost immediately received 72 responses. Nonetheless, after a few years, Arena felt it was time to return to advertising.
Back at Y&R as a Creative Director for a decade she then moved to Saatchi from which she retired.
For the next seven years she regularly attended the Art Students League where she was able to paint from live models. Among those she studied with were Sharon Sprung, Mary Beth McKenzie, Ephriam Rubinstein, Tom Torak and Cornelia Foss.
At the League she was taught to “paint the light.” “Once I was able to embody this concept in my work, it was if the portraits emerged more easily from the canvases.”
During Arena’s years of creating television commercials, she mastered the art of storytelling,
a talent that has had a powerful effect upon her artistic process. “While I’m painting, I make up a story about my subject. Perhaps the woman in a thick sweater and fur hat with her head resting upon her hand is waiting for someone. A lover? An old flame? An old friend.”
Of late, since she has been living and painting full time in her home studio in Remsenburg, she has moved beyond figures and portraits. Surrounded by the landscape and lighting that has been a beacon for artists for centuries, she has turned toward plein air painting of landscapes, while not entirely giving up the figure. Recalling JMW Turner’s extraordinary journey from realism to abstraction, Arena expresses an excitement about exploring new directions. “I eagerly await where they will lead me and what will be revealed on my canvases.”
Recently, in Prague, she viewed a retrospective of Gerhard Richter’s work and was struck by the scope and how “he explores everything”. In her newest works, Arena has been setting figures against the sunrises and sunsets and other natural phenomenon. But the stories remain. She aspires to engage viewers deeply in her works, inspiring them to envision their own tall tales of what lies on the canvas.
Arena has shown her paintings in Ad Agency Shows, Art Students League shows, at the Remsenburg Academy and The Quogue Library.