Painting The Light Fantastic
Local painting champ Patrick Arena has gone a circuitous route to wind his way from his native Syracuse, New York, to Nashville. And, as accomplished as he is wielding acrylic magic, he started a bit late.
“I drew pictures from the earliest age I could hold a pencil, but I got into painting first in community college in Syracuse, and then I spent a very brief time in Boston at the Museum School of Fine Arts, but my financial aid package didn’t come together, so about halfway through the first semester they pulled my support and I couldn’t afford such a school on my own,” says Arena, recalling the portrait of the artist as a young man. “So, I dropped out and was a bank teller for a year, then moved back to upstate New York, and I spent a little stint in New York City driving a truck more than I painted anything. So, my formal education is really very limited. Either self-taught or mentoring with other artists and trying to observe and mimic.”
He downplays himself with that word, ‘mimic’. Whether he copied other artists in his learning years or not, he’s long since found his own voice. Or several voices, some more unusual than others. Arena uncannily captures the look and colors of sunlight shining on the white side of a house and casting complimentary blue shadows, getting that knack of capturing the look of a sunny day by what objects are touched by sunlight. “The impressionists really broke down light. It was revolutionary at the time. The old masters could paint accurately, but the impressionists did it in a way that really captures the essence of light,” he explains.
“Your goals as an artist at my age are a lot different than they are in your ’20s. When you’re young like that, you want to be famous, or at least recognized, all this other crap. But then you come to appreciate craft and experience. It changes your perspective.”
Then there is the odd portrait of an axe-wielding kitty cat or a dog wearing a three-piece suit (better still is the canine Princess Leia), and in other respects employing realism in a rendering that one would take for photography on first glimpse. Throw in curve balls like his menu banner at Mitchell Deli, or the Nashville Scene box in front of Gabby’s painted to look like a cat with an outstretched mouth surrounding the flap you pull down on to get the paper out.
As inferred by his stints as a bank teller and a truck driver, Arena’s more than cognizant that an artist has to earn a living during the day unless he or she wants to wind up like Van Gogh, smelly and living in a shed. “I have a day job,” he says, “I work for Metro, because everyone’s got to have health insurance, but I’ve had various stints doing freelance, and I’ve done a lot of photo retouching and Photoshop work. This week has been nuts for me, (that week being smack in the middle of the holiday season at the time of this writing) because even though I have a day job I still do a lot of commission work, especially during the holidays. I was delivering commissioned paintings up until 9 p.m. Christmas Eve.”
A genial chap in his forties, Arena’s travels took him from the aforementioned East Coast enclaves to Quincy, Illinois, and Kansas City, before he settled in East Nashville some years back. While in the Midwest, he developed an appreciation for the “regionalists.” “The ringleader for those guys was Thomas Hart Benton. I always really liked him. He had a lot of influence in Missouri, because he was from Missouri and had a studio in Kansas city, and his father was a senator from that area. But the guy I really liked from the regionalists a lot, who kind of gets overlooked, because his most famous painting [‘American Gothic’] gets satirized a lot, is Grant Wood. He was a really great landscape painter. I enjoy his sort of sense of whimsy, and his sense of light. ‘American Gothic’ is actually one of his lesser works.”
Arena has certainly given back to the community. His résumé is rife with supervisory positions. He’s been the director of the Nashville Drawing Group, the Nashville branch of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, and United Nashville.
“Your goals as an artist at my age are a lot different than they are in your ’20s. When you’re young like that, you want to be famous, or at least recognized, all this other crap. But then you come to appreciate craft and experience. It changes your perspective. I enjoy talking to young artists because they bring a lot of vitality to the conversation, but talking to someone who’s got a couple more decades experience has a little more nuance. It’s nice to have that perspective, and talk to someone who understands where you’re coming from.”