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
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