When Brigitte saw an announcement for painting classes in the window of her local gallery, she signed up on a whim. Little did she know how freely and easily she would paint, launching her next act as an artist.
Tell us a little about your background…
I am a nomad, by origin and way of life. I was born and raised in Rabat, Morocco. I am a Moroccan Berber Jew. [Berbers were nomadic tribes that travelled throughout Morocco and eventually settled there. As a matter of fact, my maiden name, Aflalo, comes from the name of a small river in the south of Morocco, ‘Ifli.’]
My mother’s ancestors were Portuguese who sought refuge in Morocco from the Inquisition in Portugal. My mother was born and raised in Rabat, Morocco, where she met my father. Tragically, she died after giving birth to my brother, André. Today, he and his family live in Connecticut.
Growing up in Morocco was paradise. I feel lucky for having spent the first 25 years of my life there. Nature everywhere. An explosion of colors and scents. In my garden, roses and pansies abounded next to apricot, orange, and plum trees. Half an hour away from our villa, the Atlantic Ocean and the beaches with their infinite expanses of white sand. I grew up in an environment that valued loyalty, goodness of the heart, generosity, family ties, and friendship.
I also feel fortunate because, contrary to the prevailing traditions, I was brought up in a milieu that considered girls as equal to boys. My brother and I received the same attention, respect, and love from my father and his parents, who helped him to raise us. I was not aware of gender inequality. I was not brought up to become a wife and a mother.
It might have been different, hadn’t my mother died. But, as a result of my a-typical upbringing—which, by the way, baffled my girlfriends and made them a bit envious—I’ve never thought that being a woman could be a handicap. I am grateful to my father for not confining me to a role based on my gender. This may be one of the reasons why I’ve never hesitated to change careers, live in different countries with distinct cultures, or engage in new activities. I’ve always felt that I could do anything I wanted to as long as I gave it my best—a principle upon which my father insisted.
I went to an all-girl Lycée (high school) in Rabat, where I studied in French, my mother tongue. Afterwards, I went to college in Montréal, Canada. Upon receiving my college degree, I came back to Morocco, where I landed my first job as a reporter in a French-speaking national newspaper. I loved every aspect of it. This was in 1978. Back then, I was among a handful of women working as reporters in Morocco and I was the first Moroccan Jewish woman journalist.
My next job was even more thrilling than the previous one. I was 24 when the then Minister of Tourism appointed me as his Presse Attachée, which made me a member of the government. I didn’t have a clue as to how a Ministry operated, much less what being a political appointee meant. Nevertheless, I took the job. I broke a second record as the first Moroccan Jewish woman ever elected to the Government. My position entailed enormous challenges and responsibilities. Its main objective consisted of promoting Moroccan tourism abroad. I prepared promotional materials, published articles introducing Morocco as a touristic destination, toured the country with tourism professionals from around the world.
Yet, 16 months into this position, I felt I had given it everything I had; I no longer felt challenged. I began to think about moving to the United States, a country which had been on my mind since I was a child. My father had spent his entire professional career at the US Embassy in Rabat, Morocco. Through him, my brother and I had been exposed to American culture from an early age and had fallen in love with it. Settling one day in America had been our dream. An opportunity to leave presented itself; I jumped on it.
I arrived in Washington, DC, on September 26, 1981, with a small suitcase and $250. I was 26, eager to start a life on my own and, probably, a bit unconscious. I was somewhat familiar with Washington because I had visited it with my father when I was 14. Back then, I remember having been immediately and unconditionally seduced.
My first six years in Washington, DC were awfully hard. The only skill that I had was to write in French, which was totally useless. I had studied the English language in high school but did not speak it fluently. These were years of solitude, frugality, and despair. But I never thought of going back. Giving up is not part of my vocabulary. After working for years at odd jobs, I applied for a secretarial position at the World Bank in Washington DC. When I left, 13 years later, I was working as a bilingual writer for one of the World Bank’s Vice Presidents.
1996 marked a turning point in my life. I met my husband-to-be, Peter, at a boxing class at the World Bank’s fitness center. Two years later, when I was 42, we married and moved to Paris, where Peter was working at the time. When we returned to Washington three years later, his job at the World Bank was waiting for him. Not mine. I felt lost. The only thing that helped me remain relatively sane was practicing yoga.
One morning I had a flash of genius: Why not teach yoga, I asked myself. I followed my instinct, trained to become an instructor and, at 45, got my first job in a yoga studio. Today, I continue to teach on a part-time basis, both to adults and children. I am still writing, as well. Writing has always been part of my life, first in French, and then in English. While working full-time in Washington, DC, I took writing classes and started freelancing for women’s magazines, travel websites, and children’s publications. Three years ago, I also began writing poetry and short stories.
What is your next act?
Today, at 60, I’ve opened a new door. I have become an artist, an abstract painter to be exact. I work with acrylics on canvas, both on small and medium-size canvasses. But I am tempted to work on large ones.
So far, I’ve completed about a dozen of paintings. I am a colorist; it could not be otherwise. Being born and raised in a country where colors are everywhere, I think in colors. My canvases burst with layers and juxtapositions of vivid reds, oranges, yellows, greens and pinks that often recreate faces incorporating elements of primitive art. Faces fascinate me. I see them everywhere: on rug patterns, cracks in a wall or the ground, traces left in mud… They appear naturally. I neither know why nor how.
I have a long list of artists that I absolutely worship; Jean-Michel Basquiat ranks first on this list. There is also Sean Scully, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Joan Miro. I am fond of Romare Bearden, a collage artist who also painted and drew beautifully. I am also inspired by Moroccan artists such as Noureddine Daifallah, Bouchta El Ayani or Chaibia Talal as well as by aboriginal dot art.
This past December, two of my artworks were selected for a group exhibit at the Arts Council of Princeton, in New Jersey. One of my paintings was sold. Having two of my paintings selected was an achievement. Selling one of them sent me to the moon. This event gave me an extraordinary boost. I decided to look for a studio.
In January 2016, I moved into a studio in an artist community, the Arts Station in Hightstown, NJ. Scary and thrilling at the same time. Today, six months later, I’m very happy to have taken this decision. Moving into a community of artists has completely changed my life and widened my horizon. We, the artists at the Arts Station, are very supportive of one another. We share information and ideas on trends and techniques, and critique each other’s work. Through the community, I have met artists in all genres and discovered that the art community is New Jersey is rich and vibrant. I’m beginning to find my place in the local art world.
As importantly, through the Arts Station, I am learning how to research art galleries and museums that have open calls for artists. A fellow artist, Katherine Hurley Liao, encouraged me to submit my art to a juried exhibit at the Ellarslie Museum in Trenton. The juror in charge of selecting the works was a director from the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Very intimidating. But I decided to go for it and submit two works. I said to myself that I needed to learn the rules of the game and take another big jump no matter what the outcome might be. If nothing else, it would be a good experience. A few days passed. No news from the museum. I concluded that I had not made it. More days passed when I received a text from my friend Katherine congratulating me for having one of my works accepted.
To make a long story short, museums publish the names of the artists they select for a show on their website. Contrary to what I expected, they don’t contact individual artists. By the time I read my name on the Ellarslie website’s list, it was past midnight. Needless to say, I could not sleep that night! It’s unbelievably wonderful. The painting selected is the second one I made. It is one of my favorite works. It’s called “Harem.” When I started it, I didn’t know where I was going. Gradually, faces of women appeared on the canvas. As I went along, I realized that the brush strokes were recreating images of Moroccan women, who often spend time together. The opening of the show was on May 6th. Since then, I have participated in two exhibits. One, ArtJam, took place in Princeton,NJ. Four of my works were selected. The second one was hosted by the Hickory Corner Library in East Windsor.
I feel that my art reflects my history as a nomad, starting with my origins, then moving to different countries and now dividing my time between two continents. I live in colors that are perpetually changing. The brush strokes find their way on the canvas to tell my stories, revealing intense emotions; many of them, I realize, I had buried deep inside me after leaving Morocco. It’s a self-defense mechanism that develops instinctively. Otherwise, how can you move on with your life? I believe that painting is serving as a catalyst, allowing my origins and new life to come to terms on the canvas. This experience made me realize that you never leave home. Or, rather, home never leaves you. And it’s fine. Right now, I am in a beautiful place. I feel safe, safe enough to let it all come out in my art.
I’ve also discovered that when I paint I feel totally free. I never received formal training, which I think plays in my favor. When I sit by the easel, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t have a particular idea in mind. I often catch myself smiling or laughing. The blank easel doesn’t scare me, as does the blank page. On the contrary, it is as if it were waiting for me, as if it had been waiting for me for a long time. It’s comforting. It’s bliss.
How did you become a painter?
There was no particular event that pushed me in that direction. In fact, I never considered painting because I believed that in order to paint, I needed to know how to draw, which I am incapable of doing. At school, in art class, I was famous and laughed at for my zero average. However, I have always been creative. It shows in the way I dress. I’ve always had friends who were artists. Perhaps a part of me has always wanted to be an artist.
Three years ago, I enrolled in a collage class, a safe alternative to drawing or painting. I enjoyed it and became quite good at it. My teacher, Donna Payton, encouraged me to continue. After two years, somehow, I wanted to expand my horizons. I needed more creative freedom, which I found in my next act.
My next act as a painter began this past summer, 2015, in Nimes, a Roman city in the South of France and my second home. For the last 13 years, my husband and I have been dividing our time between Nimes and Princeton, New Jersey.
Nimes is a rich city, both from a cultural and artistic viewpoint. One afternoon, I was strolling down a street when I read an announcement for painting classes on the window of an art gallery, L’Enfance de l’Art. I walked in and enrolled on the spot. The founder of the gallery, Régine Carail, a painter, herself, told me that class started the next day.
I showed up, a bit nervous, wondering why I had embarked on this adventure. Régine gestured me to an easel with a white canvas already prepared. “Take a look around. See which painting speaks to you,” she said. I pointed at a colorful, abstract painting hanging on a wall. “Fine. Sit down. Here is your box of colors, brushes, and knives. Don’t look at the painting anymore. Start painting. Follow the brush,” she said. And I did. Once in a while, Régine would stand behind me and give me tips. Three weeks later, she hung my first two paintings in the window of her gallery. I was the first student ever to get this honor. I am still in awe.
Why did you choose this next act?
I didn’t choose it. It was a natural evolution. Doing collages opened a door. I walked through it. Then, one thing led to another. I walked by Régine’s gallery. It was not a coincidence. I made it happen. I wanted it to happen. I do continue to do collage. For three consecutive years, I have been taking art classes at the Arts Council of Princeton with the artist Donna Payton. Now, she is teaching me how to combine collage and painting. You see, another door opened.
Were your family and friends supportive?
Totally. My husband, who is an art collector and esthete, is ecstatic. I value his opinions. He always pushes me to further explore my talents, both as a painter and a writer. My friends follow me on my Facebook page. My sister-in-law, Pamela, who started a business, Nutty Bunny (a non-dairy frozen dessert), in midlife, has been an inspiration.
My brother is my most faithful fan. There is something special between us. He joined me in Washington DC, one year after I had arrived. Together, we started from scratch, struggled, suffered, and, finally came out of the grayness. Therefore, any success, no matter how small or big it is, is always cause for celebration. We’ve really come a long way. I don’t have children but I am close to my brother’s three children. I keep them posted on my adventures. They, themselves, are creative and I often seek their advice on my writings or painting.
What challenges have you encountered? Do they ever make you think of giving up?
It’s a new passion. In this respect, it is a challenge. The challenge lies in traveling through the unknown—which, by the way, is when I am the most creative. I am curious to see what’s going to happen on the canvas, where it will take me to and how I will react. It’s like learning a new language.
No, I don’t think of giving up. I love it. I don’t intend to become a world-renowned artist. I paint because I enjoy it. Why would I give it up? However, I often think of giving up writing poetry or short story. The written word has been my medium for a long time. I know the rules. I have expectations. I can tell if my poem or story is good or not. Oftentimes, I think of giving up, especially after multiple rejections. But, I keep going. And it has paid off. For the first time, I had a poem published in the March edition of Eunoia, an online literary journal.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
No…I don’t dwell with the past. I move forward. But, it would be nice to stop time and be 60 for another 20 years.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
If you feel like you want to do something but are not sure what, think about the child you were and ask yourself what this child enjoyed, what her dreams were. You will find your answer. Don’t let timidity stop you. Don’t think that it’s too late. Don’t pay attention to what the others will think of you. Surround yourself with people who support you, unconditionally.
What advice do you have for those interested in making a business out of their art?
Join groups in your area that share your interests. Your local library may have a list of such groups or may even hold regular meetings for writers or artists. Don’t isolate yourself. Take classes or workshops on different topics. It will help you to find your new path. Research online groups. Many of them offer valuable information and are supportive. You can also research writers’ or artists’ groups on Facebook. I found Facebook to be very useful. I’ve had a personal account for several years and recently created a page to feature my artwork. It has enabled me to connect with various artists’ and writers’ communities. However, manipulating a Facebook page is not easy. I hired the services of a small company, which I strongly recommend. The website link is localbuzzllc.com.
Last, but not least, structure your time. Find the time—steal it, if necessary—to pursue your art.
What resources do you recommend for artists?
1,000,000 artists – a wonderful community that posts artwork online
New Jersey artists – another wonderfully supportive community
www.Artnews.com – keeps you posted on art news and exhibits
www.kolajmagazine.com – for collage artists
YouTube—for painting techniques and a wealth of useful information
I also like this website which offers free videos: Will Kemp Art School
When you are ready to submit your artwork, Google “call for artists.” You will find a list of art galleries and art shows that need your art and provide submission guidelines.
If you live in the Princeton, NJ area, I recommend:
Arts Council of Princeton: They offer wonderful workshops and classes all year long
What about resources for writers and poets?
I am a fan of online writing classes/services:
They offer a variety of services including copyediting, manuscript editing and researching adapted to each genre of writing.
For news on markets accepting short fiction and/or poems, I suggest:
When you are ready to submit work, you can also Google submission guidelines for poetry.
Don’t forget to check classes offered at your local library, high school or college.
Find yourself a writing partner, someone whom you trust will give you constructive criticism and help you to build your self-confidence and portfolio.
What’s next for you?
I would love to teach painting classes to kids. I enjoy working with kids. I teach yoga and French to preschoolers and children, so why not show them creative ways to express themselves and, at the same time, build their self-esteem?
Contact Brigitte Aflalo-Calderon at Brigittevisualarts@gmail.com or (202) 297-2233