Honing the Craft: Brigitte Kolibab

Written by Leigh Pennington

Brigitte Kolibab was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York a year ago and I was instantly taken with her empathetic open nature. Over the past year I have come to regard her as a friend and part-time yoga guru, but only recently was I afforded a glimpse into the nature of her exquisite soul as an artist. For our interview we met at her studio in Bushwick and she took me through her journey and progression as an artist both in Brooklyn and around the world.


Hailing from the East side suburbs of Cleveland Ohio, Kolibab comes from a family steeped in artistic expression. “My upbringing there (Cleveland) was unique because my parents are actors in theater, and I was in a place where I was probably the only one who had parents that were actors in theater. I spent most of my childhood in a dressing room or green room or in the front row of a theater.”

From an early age Kolibab had an affinity for capturing the world around her. “I remember being at my aunt’s house and I was shy and someone would sit in front of the big cabinet that had all of the paper and the markers inside and I would just wait like itching for someone to get up from that chair in the dining room so that I could go in there. I would sit with a box of Rose Art markers, a big shoe box with hundreds of colors and a stack of computer paper, and I would spend the entire Thanksgiving drawing a shoe, drawing a tree, getting them out to people drawing more, drawing more, drawing more, drawing more.”

Although Kolibab displayed a proclivity for art at an early age, her trajectory as an artist wasn’t always a straight line. When embarking on the proverbial college tour Kolibab applied for the business program at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I thought I was going to be a business student because it seemed like the intelligent thing to do.”

However, her path as an artist would not be deterred. During her campus tour she visited the admissions office of the Tyler School of Art and was accepted on the spot. “I took a lot of painting classes, but what I was creating was three-dimensional and wearable mostly. I made a lot of pieces about drugs and drug addiction. I made a lot of pieces that could function. I was obsessed with creating an umbrella mechanism or telling a story with a 3D object.”

After a few years studying, traveling the world, and working as an artist Kolibab made the move to Brooklyn during the pandemic. Some of her first working experiences as an artist (including personal portrait commissions) happened out and about in New York’s vibrant night-life, her very first was a live painting job for the hip hop label Space Syndicate.

“I was hired by a club to make paintings in the club, Friday and Saturday night. I’d start painting between two or three in the morning and paint till 8:00 a.m… I was influenced by the energy around me as far as the tone of the painting, and sometimes the subject matter. But what started to change was I started to paint things very quickly. A very important part of my progression as a painter has actually been being a clubs, being at shows, being at parties, interacting with people, vibing from their energy, and then creating something that ends up being forced to be more expressionistic or more abstract.”

Kolibab has a particular talent for rendering the energy of her encounters, combining spirit with form. Her portrait paintings are a prime example of this gift. “I’ll never stop painting the figure, because I think I have a really beautiful ability to show you the essence of a person.” Her figure work is an essential portion of her progression as an artist, painting figures and places from life develops her artistic muscles. She describes this process as “weightlifting”. “If you can visualize the curve of the body, and perfectly paint the curve… my hands on that a billion times. If I want to create a piece that’s abstract I want to imply that same curve. Now I have created the strength of that muscle to do that. So while I’m creating an abstract world we are grounded somewhat in reality here.”

Kolibab’s dive into the realm of abstraction has been a gradual process, everything in its season and its time. Slowly she has allowed herself to break the rules of traditionalist painting.

Kolibab’s dive into the realm of abstraction has been a gradual process, everything in its season and its time. Slowly she has allowed herself to break the rules of traditionalist painting. “I think that having an education in art you learn a lot of rules… The rules are very important and then you have to break them in order to do incredible things. But waiting for a place where I felt like my craft is strong enough that now I’m allowed to do something new. And I’ve been shying away from being an abstract painter for a long time because I wanted my craft to get to a place where I was able to paint a whole canvas red and know that I’m a skillful painter doing it. That the mark is informed, the composition is informed.”

Kolibab has bided her time and developed her skills to branch into a new direction of abstract expression while still gaining life blood for her work from some of her most reliable sources of self, her life-long authored journals. “The oldest notebooks I have are maybe from when I was twelve. The one that I have that I really filled up, I think started when I was around seventeen.” These journals chronicle Kolibab’s extensive travel and life in Mexico, Bali, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Rome, and New York. They include written and visual renditions of the experiences, sites and people she encountered during her many journeys. Her latest in progress series, currently a collection of five pieces, draws many of its inspirations and visuals from these journals.

The genesis of this series came on an emotional day for Kolibab. “Reading through my journals and seeing my drawings and seeing my poetry, I realized that no matter where I was, no matter what year it was, no matter what was going on, it was the same feelings over and over again, the same troubles in my relationships, the same excitement, the same anticipation, the same pain. So I realized between I don’t want to hurt you and I lost control again, it wasn’t a one-time moment. I saw it over and over again. So, then I decided to add the statements: Please stop, I can’t fix it, I hate the lies, Don’t leave, Take me. For Kolibab these statements are reciprocal, experiences shared and circulated by most people. “Looking back I realized we all relive the same problems over and over again, it’s not just me, it’s all of us.”

These cyclical feelings that Kolibab has experienced throughout her life are her current source for inspiration, her drawings containing a greater sense of fulfillment for her personally as an artist. “I’m really enjoying playing with the consistency of color, playing with lines… seeing if I can make these paintings look like sketches.” Kolibab aims to continue developing these pieces, an experiment of self she is excited to progress.

For Kolibab both art and life is a practice of authenticity and honesty, a practice that comes from knowing oneself through the introspection of lived experiences.

For Kolibab both art and life is a practice of authenticity and honesty, a practice that comes from knowing oneself through the introspection of lived experiences. Her work tells the story of her life, her encounters out in the world, meanings pertaining to the energy of specific moments, places and people. She hopes that her work as an artist will inspire others to find and value their most true selves. As her craft as an artist continues to grow I cannot wait to see what vibration of pure life she will bring next to the canvas.

Hailing from Richmond Virginia, Leigh Pennington has lived, worked and studied around the world. She earned her BA in Anthropology, Art History, and Religion from Concordia University in Montreal. Last year she moved to New York to pursue a Masters in Oral History at Columbia University. Prior to moving back to the US she earned her first Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Jewish Studies. Currently Leigh works as a freelance culture content writer as well as an Op-Ed editor for the Times of Israel. Her writing has been published in major news and opinion media such as Quebec Heritage News, Tablet Magazine and Lilith Magazine.