Born in Chicago, Illinois on September 21, 1965, Bridgette R Alexander is a 19th Century French Art Historian specializing in the racial and sexuality construction during the development of modern Parisian culture, singling out one artist, Edouard Manet, for deeper focus. She’s also an independent curator and an art advisor.
Over a twenty-year period, Bridgette devoted her attention to the art worlds of New York City, Paris and Berlin, parlaying that experience into a second career as the author of a young adult book series, the Celine Caldwell Mysteries. Here, she talks about her latest novel. "Southern Gothic."
Kam Williams: Hi Bridgette, thanks for the interview.
Bridgette Alexander: Hi Kam, I am so pleased to talk with you.
KW: What whetted your interest in writing, what whetted your interest in art history, and how did you come to combine the two?
BA: When I started studying art history, I hoped to become an historian of ancient Egyptian art and an archaeologist. I’d spent most of my weekends as a teen at the Oriental Institute in the Education Department and in the archives reading and studying in an unofficial capacity with the Director of Education at that time. I would go to the Field Museum and study there as well.
Much, much later, long after college, I returned to the Field Museum and taught Egyptian Hieroglyphics to groups of children as an overnight workshop. I’d teach them the Ancient Alphabet and then instruct them on creating their own cartouche with their names. And then we’d spend the night near, or sometimes for the daring ones, in an exhibit area of the tombs.
But, back to the point. It was much later when I changed my major to Modern Art. I was living in NYC and started studying at Columbia University. I learned I couldn’t actually major in ancient Egyptian art history in that department. I was taking a number of modern art courses, one particular course with Rosalind Krauss, and in her slide presentation of modern masterpieces she introduced the class to Edouard Manet’s Olympia, a painting of a reclining nude white woman and standing right next her a clothed black woman.
After that course, I took about six more classes in modern art ranging from feminism to theoretical constructs in modernity and, each time, Manet’s painting kept coming back to me. It happened so often, I knew it was telling me something…something more than the mere analysis the professors were so brilliantly laying out. For one thing, I couldn’t understand why so much had been written and discussed about Olympia, Edouard Manet's seminal work, a painting so important it is what led him to be known as the father of modern art.
Thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled about that painting and yet not one, real, honest mention of the black woman standing in it. Years later, at the University of Chicago, I centered much of my graduate study around not only Manet and that painting, but around the life and world of the standing black woman, whose name was Laure, and around the thousands of African, Jewish and Arab female artists' models in Paris during the Second Empire, which made up 60% of female artists' models in Paris. I still want to write that story.
KW: How did you develop the confidence to pursue your dream of a writing career?
BA: I have written and told stories since I received my first diary as a young child. Writing was a refuge for me, and a way to put my thoughts in front of myself. Writing never challenged my confidence, but was something I always needed to do, just as I live to tell stories. Before I was 23 and working at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a trader assistant, I already had the vivid sense that my life and work were my own.
When my grandparents died and left me alone as a young adult, I was confident in my own decisions. I don’t mean to say that the path was clear to me. It wasn’t until much later, when I was a scholar of 19th Century French Art History living in Paris that I finally awoke to the art of writing as something I could pursue professionally. And it wasn’t until a few years after that that I realized that my writing had always been storytelling.
KW: How did you come to settle on young adult readers as your target demographic?
BA: I don’t think I’ve ever left my own young adult stage of life. It is such an incredibly beautiful, complicated and amazing time for most of us. We’re no longer a child that really needs momma and daddy, but also not quite a full-on grown person. It’s probably, and certainly it was that way for me, a sort of delicious purgatory.
BA: Lady Macbeth meets the Gossip Girls for a day of art, crime and culture.
KW: What was the source of inspiration for the book?
BA: "Southern Gothic" has many sources of inspiration. The book and the series represent a revisiting of my experiences in the art world. The historical material in "Southern Gothic" has a distant source in my husband’s old Scottish Presbyterian family in North Carolina. Religious groups and cultural sects in North Carolina during the 19th Century, like the Quakers, provided inspiration, too. And raising my daughter helped me re-think daughters and mothers. The protagonist Celine and her mother Julia are one result of that.
KW: How did you go about writing it? Did you create an outline to follow, or did it come to you as you went along?
BA: I don’t create an outline per se, however, I do have to create what I call “beats.” Writing to beats was not my creation, but a method I picked up from another writer, and I love it. I go through each action in the story and just write out the entire plot, subplot, character arc, everything… It all just gets laid out so splendidly. Even before I do that, the story starts to unfold in my mind as I create scenarios for Celine Caldwell to inhabit. Of course, the story sometimes changes when characters or plots refuse to go along with my plan. Eventually, I give up and let them live their own lives.
KW: Your heroine, Celine Caldwell, is biracial and the plot involves a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan. Did you consciously decide to have a non-white protagonist and to explore sensitive subject-matter?
BA: Yes, I did. I wanted her to be absolutely different from me. I thought about her as I rocked my own bi-racial daughter to sleep for afternoon naps. I thought about what her life could look like – a life of privilege, a life traveling the world at such a young age; a life navigating through social circles that I didn’t and couldn’t enter and, to a certain extent, didn’t want to engage with…I created a girl that could go in and out of that world of privilege and own it and see a lot of its ugliness. On the other hand, Celine’s contact with the KKK is through reading old diary entries from a girl her own age who lived in the 19th Century American South.
I wanted Celine to see her life juxtaposed with that of someone living in dramatically different social conditions. I myself wanted to somehow experience a life that extreme right along with Celine. And throughout the book series, I attempt to continue that process.
In the second book, "Sons Of Liberty," scheduled for release in the spring 2017, we’ll find Celine tackling a right-wing political organization as it’s tentacles reach into her private school while locking itself in a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, creating total disruption in the name of “returning our country to its greatness”. In book three, "Pasha," a former arms dealer-turned-art patron is being honored by the establishment of the art world but, unfortunately, Celine Caldwell intercepts a fatwa that has been issued against the newly-reformed art benefactor.
Each of the twelve books in the series examines social and political issues, without being preachy or didactic. And the art, oh my God, I am so excited and thrilled about the art that’s featured in the series. The art takes the reader through centuries of visual culture from American portraiture, French Heroism and French Orientalism to Modern and Contemporary Islamic Art. The series is a beautiful journey through art history that is both sexy and informative.
I think that’s why my retail partners, Henri Bendel and Clarins, are excited – developing and reaching new readers in the way Celine Caldwell does is very appealing to them! So, through this year, Henri Bendel and Clarins has partnered with Celine Caldwell Mystery Series to present fun and exciting book launch events at their stores across the nation. We’ve held a couple at the Chicago flagship for a packed house. People are falling in love with Celine Caldwell!
If I may add, for more information on events and locations, please visit http://celinecaldwell.com. There, you’ll also find our secret razzmatazz button for giveaways.We also have original music created for each book in the series. The music was created by Francisco Dean, a music teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. You can hear the music by watching the "Southern Gothic" book trailer at celinecaldwell.com. We’re also looking to option the series for television.
KW: Does “Southern Gothic” have a message you want people to take away from it?
BA: I hope the experience is as meaningful to others as I felt it, but no, I do not have a message to convey.
KW: How is the progress coming with see your next book about prominent African-American art collectors.
BA: Wow! The book is entitled "Black Market." It is a close examination of prominent African-American art collectors and whites who collect modern and contemporary art created by African-American and/or artists of African descent. This book was alive and had a publisher until the economic crash in 2008 threw the book market into a tailspin that changed publishing forever. I interviewed over 150 black collectors and a few prominent white collectors.
With Goldman Sachs as a partner, I staged events called the Collector’s Circle that included a few of the collectors featured in Black Market. The events were held in art museums in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. I completed all of the interviews around 2009 and photographed close to a third of the interviewees. However, in light of our post-2008 economy, which has brought a lot of amazingly new essence to collecting art as a cultural custodian, I am interested in interviewing a new crop of collectors, before finalizing the project and getting it published.
KW: Who are some of the celebrities participating in the project?
BA: I talked to Wall Street executives, prominent businessmen, such as Raymond McGuire and Rodney Miller; museum directors like Maxwell Anderson; and academics. Television and motion picture actors like CCH Pounder; authors such as Terry McMillan, and Maya Angelou; Hip-Hop mogul Russell Simmons and his artist older brother, Danny Simmons. Hotelier and major art collectors Don and Mera Rubel; several well-known sports legends such as Calvin and Grant Hill, State Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, Darryl Walker and Elliot Perry, and many powerhouse women, such as Dr. Joy Simmons, Eileen Harris Norton and Vivian Hewitt who comes with an incredibly exquisite history in art, including hosting salons for her friends, “Jake” Lawrence and Romi Bearden.
There are also plenty of wonderful, extraordinary everyday people in the book. I collected some amazing stories about fathers and sons, and about the connection between a man and woman and how they became husband and wife; and the chilling story of art lost under the weight of Hurricane Katrina. That particular story is heartbreaking.
KW: Who are some of the artists whose works will be featured in the book?
BA: You know, a lot of the usual suspects for some of the older and/or traditional art collectors: Lawrence, Bearden, Catlett, Gordon Parks, Henry O. Tanner, and Harold Woodruff. However, for the contemporary art collector, the more cutting edge or avant-garde collector, those collections hold the likes of: David Hammons, Mark Bradford, Basquiat and Warhol collaborative works, Rashid Johnson, Mickalene Thomas and others. The list is utterly amazing.
KW: AALBC.com founder Troy Johnson asks: What was the last book you read?
BA: "Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain. I read it for school when I was in the 7th grade and have been dying to introduce the story to my daughter. She and I just finished it.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
BA: It’s vivid, because it’s shrouded in trauma. I was 2 years-old and being admitted into the Bethany Brothers Hospital to have my tonsils removed. My grandmother bought me a little yellow pajama set with white polka dots, something that I would wear after the operation. She didn’t come with me; my mother did. I was really frightened because my Madear wasn’t there. I was in the intake room, got my temperature taken, had a little hospital gown placed on me…and was then weighed, placed on a gurney, and rolled into the operating room. Once inside, the sea foam blue room, a black oxygen mask was placed over my face and the attending physician told me to start counting.
The next thing I remember was waking up en route to my hospital room where a silver baby bed was waiting for me. I spent the night in the hospital alone. The next morning, after screaming in pain from the surgery, the nurses carried me around the hospital to meet some of the other patients. One patient was a pregnant African-American woman. I can see her so clearly right now. She was really cute and her stomach was ginormous. Later that same day, there was some terrible construction accident and some of the construction workers were sent to Bethany Brothers Hospital. I shared my room with one of the construction workers. I bet that wouldn’t happen today. Truly, I was two and this did happen.
KW: Who loved you unconditionally during your formative years in Chicago?
BA: My grandparents--John and Bertha Talley. No one else, I think. They loved me and made me believe in my own ability to be loved and take that love out into the world and let it be my companion on my life’s journey. So, because of them, I have lived and traveled everywhere almost, by myself with no fears... because they loved me.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
BA: Yes, when I was around 4 or 5 and my grandmother read the story of King David to me and talked about him all the time. I somehow loved David and became jealous of him at the same time. I wanted the same kind of relationship he had with God.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
BA: Midnight pasta with a glass of Malbec. I learned this recipe while spending a summer learning French technique at the French Culinary Institute in Soho. I didn’t exactly learn it in class, but the kitchen staff taught me after restaurant hours ended. You need a super good, California extra-virgin olive oil, about five to seven garlic cloves, red pepper flakes and several other ingredients.
KW: What was your very first job?
BA: I dressed as one of five Mrs. Santa Claus selling summer sausages at the Brickyard Shopping Mall for Christmas Holiday in Chicago. It sounds messed up, but it was one of the best times I ever had on a job. The Santa was drunk for most of the season; and fired because he pinched a kid. The Santa who replaced him was even worse. And every time I walked up to shoppers with a 15-inch sausage in one hand and a little knife to cut a slice in the other, the comebacks I received from men and some women were priceless. It was awesome!
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
BA: A dark skinned, shaved-head version of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and aunt. Only I’m a little more fearless and absolutely driven to be out and about in the world.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
BA: Continued vibrantly good health, and living on the Central Coast of California in a beautiful Richard Meier modern home with a pool and guesthouse with my hubby David and daughter Chloe.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
BA: I don’t feel guilt over things that I take pleasure in. If you’re asking about unusual things that I take pleasure in that other people may not, well…I have skincare. It’s been my indulgence since I was a teenager.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
BA: Yes, what was the true impact your grandparents, John and Bertha Talley, aka June and Madear, had on you? Answer: They saved my life. Their pragmatism kept me living right at my means; their drive and desires for me allowed me to reach for the seemingly unreachable and then push myself further. Without them, I would have never had the nerve to leave Chicago on a Greyhound bus for NYC with $20 in my pocket and relocate to Manhattan with no place to stay. They gave me the composure to find a job as an usher for Radio City Music Hall and eventually get a first-class education.
KW: Judyth Piazza asks: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
BA: The ones I have known are driven, focused, and doggedly committed to their goals. They definitely do not take their business or professional setbacks personally or allow emotions to cloud their judgment. I love them and I envy them, like I did with King David.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
BA: You better love who you are, because you are going to spend so much of your time alone with yourself, you better be happy with yourself. If not, fix it.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Bridgette, and best of luck with "Southern Gothic."
BA: Thank you, Kam.
For more information about the Celine Caldwell Mystery Series, visit http://celinecaldwell.com
To order a copy of "Southern Gothic," visit: www.Amazon.com