How Did This Artist Build a Home in Her Native Colombia? On Her Own Terms

Paola Singer and produced by Ingrid Abramovitch
·4-min read
Photo credit: Harold Valencia
Photo credit: Harold Valencia

From ELLE Decor

Anita Calero has never really cared for conventions. In her teens, she said goodbye to a cosseted life in her hometown of Cali, Colombia, to study in Europe, where she immersed herself in both the hippie and punk countercultures of the late 1960s. In her 20s, she left the stability of her marriage to a man to explore her feelings for a woman, then moved to New York City in pursuit of her artistic dreams. “I’m the only one of my siblings who didn’t finish college,” she says. “Everyone else is married with children and grandchildren. They followed the rules. I just wanted to be Anita.”

Shortly after arriving in Manhattan in the late ’70s, Calero found her calling as a prop stylist and still-life photographer. She gained notoriety for her sublime images that show painstakingly arranged, highly evocative compositions: a delicate flower that bends just so against the wind, or a piece of fruit that comes alive under a ray of sunshine. Over the past four decades, she has risen through the creative ranks, collaborating with top magazines and luxury brands such as Bergdorf Goodman and Costume National, all while being resolutely herself.

Photo credit: Anita Calero
Photo credit: Anita Calero

So her decision to return to Cali, a place that in her youth represented staidness, may have come as a surprise to friends and colleagues. But like everything else, Calero did this on her terms: “I’m a Virgo, which means I’m very organized. When I turned 60, I started to think about coming back,” says the artist, who is now 68. “I wanted to build a house where I could ease into old age, and I wanted to be the one to design it.”

Instead of looking for an urban property, she went up into the mountains that surround Cali, which is in the Cauca Valley of western Colombia, and found a hillside plot with sweeping city views. She tore down an existing structure and began to dream up a home that suited her sensibilities. Her concept was both simple and masterful: a pitched-roof house with tall ceilings, big windows, and lots of wood, built perpendicular to the downslope of the hill, almost as if suspended in the air.

Photo credit: Anita Calero
Photo credit: Anita Calero

“It’s so special and beautifully situated,” says creative director Peggy Bennett, a longtime friend of Calero’s who visited the artist in Cali last year. “The mountain rises up in the back, and in the front it just disappears from view; all you see is a huge avocado tree that grows from below the railing of the deck.”

As a lover of the natural world, Calero wanted the subtropical foliage of the Cauca Valley to have a starring role in her design. The exterior of the house was painted black to make the greenery stand out. Inside, glass panes with thick wooden frames display vibrant views of overgrown ferns and lanky palms and blooming trees, backed by Cali’s sprawl in the distance.

Photo credit: Anita Calero
Photo credit: Anita Calero

The main living area, a large, open space surrounded by a cantilevered deck made of local achapo wood, is furnished with cherished pieces from Calero’s previous homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons: a round George Nakashima table with matching chairs in walnut and woven grass, a set of Hans Wegner lounge chairs with pillows upholstered in linen, and a Carl-Gustaf Hiort af Ornäs armless sofa. Throughout the home, there is a balance between strength and softness, between the sharp lines of the interiors and the fluidity of the rustling leaves right outside, between the rusticity of the wood floors and ceilings and the delicacy of carefully arranged objets d’art.

“A person can walk into this space and know exactly who I am, even if I don’t say a word,” Calero says. “It’s like the showroom of my soul.”

Calero has succeeded in building the house of her dreams, yet she never intended for her homecoming to be permanent. For the past few years, she has been splitting her time between Cali and Barcelona, where her photographer partner, Gemma Comas, is based. When the pandemic hit, Calero was in Colombia getting ready to fly to Spain. As of October, she had not yet been able to leave the country, which has imposed strict lockdowns.

“This house is perfect and I can’t complain, but there are so many things I miss,” she says with a sigh.

In true Anita fashion, she has made the most of the situation. In June, she was asked to photograph the home of Latin music superstar J Balvin, and since she wasn’t allowed to travel to Medellín (domestic Colombian travel was limited at the time), Calero directed the entire shoot via FaceTime.

“I don’t like taking ‘no’ for an answer, so I had to find a way to make it work,” she says. “Life goes on. Nothing is going to stop my creativity.”

Photo credit: Ricardo Labougle
Photo credit: Ricardo Labougle

This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of ELLE Decor.

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