I met Joseph R. Areno when he was working at Areno Produce with his father, Joe Sr., back in 1980. I had taken over the kitchen at the famous Enterprise Fish Company and did what any new manager would do: cut costs. One obvious method was to buy more produce from other companies, less from Areno. Their prices were higher and their invoices were handwritten in dense blue excitable ink. When I revealed my plans to the kitchen crew, one of the fish cutters shook his head, drew his blade symbolically across his throat, and went back to work. The Arenos were Sicilian and I could expect the worst.
A few weeks later, I stepped into the narrow hallway outside my office. Leaning against the wall facing my doorway was a robust man with tanned cheeks, his hair a windswept, finger-combed thicket. He wore a grey-green sweater pushed to the elbows, khakis, well-used work boots, and a half-smile. “You’re David?” he asked. The hallway was suddenly claustrophobic. Here was Joe Areno.
That morning, Joe gave me a lesson in buying produce. He spilt open crates of produce — some from Areno, some from other companies — and with the help of the crew in the back, demonstrated how the Areno crates yielded as much as 50 percent more lettuce, tomatoes, lemons, and cabbage for only a small increase in price.
I immediately liked Joe. He engendered trust. And loyalty. I moved between restaurants for a few years, and wherever I went, I ordered from Joe.
Then one evening, not long after my first encounter with Joe, the artist and longstanding UCSB professor Bill Rohrbach asked me to join him at a friend’s home for dinner. Bill referred to his friend only as Joey, and described him as a great artist with whom he’d had the pleasure to work. When we knocked on the green wooden door, it was Joe who answered. That night I met Joe’s wife, Maria, and his beautiful daughters, Renata and Andreé. The food was delicious, wine flowed, and the hospitality and laughter ran throughout the house like the scent of roses. But my biggest surprise of the evening was Joe’s paintings. I lingered in the dining room and living room, amazed at Joe’s artwork.
It was true that Joe was Sicilian, but only half. His mother, Madeline, who lives in Goleta, is French-Canadian. I remember Joe doing tallies aloud in the produce garages, counting in a mixture of French, Spanish, and English.
Joe became one of my most cherished friends, a man of sincerity and determination with a wit as dry and flammable as kindling. He always exhibited thoughtfulness about the things that demanded clear thinking, but wasted no time focusing on the others.
As early as 1988, Joe considered the trap he was in — working in the family business and living expensively in Santa Barbara — and how he might spring it. He wanted to paint, just paint, and he knew Santa Barbara was too precious for an artist. He wrote, “The light here is and will forever be fantastic. But one need not necessarily live in it all the time. One can visit the light now and then and so perhaps appreciate it all the better.” Soon after Joe wrote this, his father sold the produce business, and Joe took the leap: He would be Joe Areno, painter, and nothing more.
Already Joe had established himself as one of the best artists in Santa Barbara. He studied art in Montreal, New York, Paris, at Santa Barbara City College under Jorgen Hansen and Robert Craner, and at UCSB under Rohrbach and Richard Phipps. In Santa Barbara, his paintings sold in the best galleries, a room at the University Club took his name after they hung a number of his paintings there, and he became a member of the esteemed Oak Group.
Joe rented a studio in downtown Santa Barbara with a loft reached by an aluminum ladder. He lived there with Maria and the girls for more than a year before Maria had had enough and found an apartment and a job teaching in the Head Start program. Joe stayed on, living and working in the studio for more than 12 years.
He worked in oil, charcoal, pastel, and watercolor. He made his own pastels and charcoals by hand. He cut and gilded his own frames. He painted portraits, landscapes, city scenes, homes, and even cars. But he loved to paint and draw the human form. One of his favorite subjects was men and women at work.
A large body of Joe’s work was completed in and around Santa Barbara. But he also traveled around the United States and to Cuba, Lebanon, Mexico, England, and several times to his birthplace of Montreal. He returned with works that captured the places in ways that made you feel like he’d gone back in time to a simpler, more elemental, and more beautiful place. Salted among the street scenes and landscapes were always the people — the street musicians, the fishers, the construction workers, the street cleaners. My own favorite series were the charcoals, pastels, and paintings he completed of the De la Guerra adobe restoration.
“All of my work is derived ‘from life,’” he wrote, “from daily activities and experiences. I can only make mine that which I grasp and capture through a total commitment to experience.”
In the years I knew Joe, he was particularly proud of his wife and daughters. Joe met Maria in 1977 and they married August 12, 1978. Joe always spoke of Maria and her insight and independence with the highest regard. Joe admired his daughters — as different from each other as seasons — as if they were wrought from gold and lace. He was inspired by their courage and creativity, and he always basked in his time with them.
In 1997, Joe and his close friends Jay Friedman and Roger Cota purchased land near St. Johns, Arizona. Joe had finally found an escape from the economics of paradise. All three built homes on the land. Joe erected a small hacienda, with a main house, a guesthouse, a studio, and storage shed. He enclosed the inner court with a wall and planted a garden.
Just a few weeks after Joe’s final move to St. Johns, he died there at the age of 56. When he summed up his life and work recently, he wrote, “There isn’t anything else in the world I would rather do or be than Joe Areno, painter.” And that’s what he did. And that’s who he was.
A memorial gathering and retrospective show of Joe’s work will be held at the University Club on Sunday, February 11 from 2 to 6 p.m.