Against a deep magenta sky, fish hang like ripe fruit from a tree with purple bark. Two cats wait below, eyes fixed on what will become lunch. In another painting, “Aquarium,” a group of girls watch fish swim in an enormous tank – but the girls are actually Russian dolls. More dolls are watching elephants in the painting titled “The Circus Comes to Town.”
With their bright colors and folkloric style, these images have a touch of Frida Kahlo. They certainly look as if they were painted in Mexico or perhaps Cuba. But the artist, Jeanne Calo, 92, was born in Tunis, Tunisia, speaks with a French accent and has lived in Princeton for 28 years. She has traveled the world, collecting trinkets wherever she goes, and these have become her subject matter.
Her paintings are on view at the Nassau Club, 6 Mercer St., Princeton, through Jan. 11, daily. There is a reception Dec. 16, 5-7 p.m.
Painting is a late-in-life metier for Ms. Calo, who went to law school in Tunis, raised four children in the United States with her husband, a cardiologist, and taught French and Italian at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) for 15 years. After retiring in 1985, she began studying painting with Mel Leipzig at Mercer County Community College.
“I tried painting figures and landscapes, but they looked too much like everyone else’s paintings,” she says from a sunny room in her home that is filled wall-to-wall with stacks of her colorful canvases. “When Mel Leipzig saw a painting I did of a mask from Ecuador, he said, ‘You have to go in that direction, you should continue painting objects.'”
Ms. Calo, who hosts French, Italian and music groups in her home, is a consummate collector. Her home is like a gift shop of all the places she’s traveled – Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt, Guatemala, Ecuador, Spain, Portugal, Italy… and that’s just the beginning. “I love Mexico,” she says, and it is evident in the colors of her paintings.
She is never alone, surrounded by a wall of masks in one room, shelves of dolls, animals, figurines, Japanese prints, ceramic pieces, quilts and textiles. “I have so much, I had to start hanging it on the ceiling,” she says. Above us dangle a frog, a cherub, a winged mermaid.
One wall of the kitchen is covered with fish. Most of these are ceramic, and most are plates, but there are miscellaneous fish objets interspersed. “I started with two and they multiplied,” she says. Some of the ceramic fish were made by Ms. Calo before retiring from Trenton State, where she took ceramics courses with Ilse Johnson. “I didn’t continue with ceramics because you accumulate heavy things you don’t know what to do with.”
And that is a key to her collecting: most of the things are small and easily displayed in groups, such as a gathering of needlepoint evening bags hanging from a wall of her living room.
Oddly, there is little from her Tunisian and French background, except for her (relatively) spare bedroom that has Directoire-style furnishings.
“We moved to Paris when I was 2,” she relates. “My father was naturalized French. His father, a rabbi, wanted him to be a rabbi, but he wanted to be an engineer and studied at the Ecole Centrale in Paris. We moved to Paris so (my father) could work on bridges and roads.”
At 22, Ms. Calo married her second cousin and moved back to Tunisia so he could practice cardiology. After Independence, the couple moved to the U.S. “All the Americans we met we liked, and we thought they would all be so pleasant,” she says. The couple lived in Browns Mills, and Ms. Calo earned her master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania while teaching French in Pennington. In 1970 she become a professor at Trenton State.
She continues to study with Mr. Leipzig twice a week at MCCC. “It helps me to make a whole of my life,” she says. “I like foreign cultures, films, exotic things and different colors. I paint what I like and it’s a pleasure to be with the objects I like and put them on canvas. I’m not thinking about the message, nor do I want to tell something about myself – I just like color and organizing objects.” She has developed her own style. “People who know me can recognize my paintings.”
Ms. Calo has been exhibiting her paintings since 1990 at such venues as Failte Coffee Shop in Hopewell, Ellarslie Museum, Artworks, the Nassau Club and Princeton Hills Gallery, among others.