Artist follows colorful path to Blacksburg
The road from 84-year-old Jordi Calvera’s birthplace in Barcelona, Spain, to a peaceful and art-filled life in Blacksburg was filled with chance and challenges.
As a child in war-torn Spain under dictator Francisco Franco, he and his family were among the many who survived without light, heat or decent food. His memories remain strong these many years later.
“We ate corn flour and water for every meal, every day,” Calvera recalled. “We wore clothes mended many times by my mother. Jobs were scarce.”
The country was in constant turmoil from the moment the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936. Bombs fell in much of northern Spain, especially in his hometown of Barcelona. To this day, Calvera bears a scar from an injury suffered while fleeing bombardment. Unable to obtain a formal education, he took a job in a textile factory at age 12, the last place he would have chosen for himself. He was interested in making art, not cloth.
An understanding uncle gave him a cheap box of paints in an effort to keep his interest in art alive. On Sundays, he would go to free art galleries or museums to study the paintings and teach himself to paint.
At the age of 27, Calvera knew he must leave Spain for a better place, and he emigrated to Venezuela in 1955, using money the same uncle lent him for passage aboard a ship, the only transport possible at that time.
In Caracas, he lived in boarding houses and worked at different jobs, often falling back on his textile technician experience. But one job took him to an industrial light factory and, by chance, led him on a path toward commercial design.
“My first job at the light factory was to sweep floors,” Calvera said. “One day, I was sweeping outside an office where two men were having a loud argument over the plans for a building for which they were to supply lighting fixtures. One man looked up in frustration and called me into the office. ‘Can you draw?’ he asked. “I said, ‘Yes.’ ”
The men explained to Calvera that the lights they originally designed for the building were not going to work and the two men could not agree on a solution. One of the men shoved a pencil and paper in front of him, told him to solve the problem and draw it.
“Suddenly, I was no longer a floor sweeper,” Calvera said.
Calvera began designing lamps for hospitals, hotels, theaters and even office buildings for the American company, Proctor and Gamble, in Caracas during a big building boom.
After a falling out with the management of the lighting company, he quit, and immediately was hired by a local textile factory thanks to his years of experience in that line of work in Barcelona. It was at this juncture he met his American wife of 45 years, Elizabeth.
Unexpectedly, he was offered a lucrative job as shop foreman for the graphic design department of the Venezuelan branch of 3M company, where he met a freelance commercial artist who drew labels for pharmaceuticals. Confident he could do the same, he quit his job at 3M, and soon began getting orders for all kinds of labels. He also painted covers for art magazines and student textbooks.
Calvera met his wife, Elizabeth, at a boarding house he was staying in. She was a “young and naive” former Georgetown University graduate student, who accepted an 18-month assignment in 1964 to do community development work with Accion en Venezuela, a privately funded organization working in the slums throughout Venezuela. Her native Spanish ability led to her being assigned to a slum in Caracas rather than a city in the interior of the country. The couple would marry several years later.
After 25 years in Venezuela, when the economic situation began to show signs of instability in the 1970s, Calvera knew they should find another country to live in. He eventually told his wife they should go to the United States, an idea that did not appeal to her. She was comfortable in a big city in South America and had a tenured job as a teacher at a prestigious local university. But she had a friend in Blacksburg who kept telling her what a nice place it was, and she knew that Calvera longed for someplace small and peaceful to live.
They made plans to visit the U.S. and landed in Roanoke on the way to West Virginia, where she had family. Seeing the countryside along Interstate 81, Calvera declared he wanted to die in Virginia. That week, they bought a townhouse in the Hethwood section of Blacksburg, put it up for rent for two years and returned to Venezuela.
Elizabeth Calvera still had no intention of living in the U.S. and worried about Calvera doing so with no knowledge of English. She challenged him to live in Blacksburg for one year alone to see if he could make it. She was sure the snowy winters and inability to communicate would chase him back to Venezuela.
With great determination and young and helpful American neighbors, Jordi Calvera survived. In 1980, Elizabeth joined him in Blacksburg at the townhouse they live in to this day.
During one of her husband’s times of unhappy employment in Venezuela, Elizabeth Calvera had challenged her husband to stay home and paint for one year, “to find your style.” She believed in his talents and knew if he could do that, he could truly be a painter. He began in his mid-40s, and in one year, had the first of several shows in Venezuela, selling many paintings and finding that this was what he should have been doing all along.
Calvera paints every day, and when he is not, he is watching art programs on TV, perusing art magazines and thinking about painting.
“To me, painting is like breathing,” Calvera said. “It is necessary for my life.”
In his studio in the basement of his home, oil paintings of South American or local landscapes cover the walls and are leaned against them around the room. Sun-drenched adobe houses or villages on canvas are interspersed with the rolling green hills of Virginia; the flowing waters of the New River. Sometimes there are cows and barns and even buffalo. A perfect charcoal drawing of his wife graces one wall. An imaginary scene of a woman draped with squares travelling up from the floor tiles on to her clothing leans against a bookcase built by Calvera.
To be surrounded by this collection of art is to feel like one is in the presence of genius. Each piece is special; most are painted with Japanese-made palette knives in assorted small and flexible sizes, filling the canvases with texture.
Some look very realistic; some are a mix of how the scene looked in the camera and how Calvera’s creative mind imagined they should be. They are worthy of loftier venues in which to hang.
Calvera has exhibited in Venezuela, in many Blacksburg locations, in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Maryland, West Virginia, South Carolina and many cities of Virginia. His works are in corporate and private collections in the U.S., Europe and South America.
To see more of Calvera’s work, visit www.jordicalvera.com.
– Submitted by Gerri Young
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