Zoe Bray








Zoe Bray was born in Paris, of a Basque mother and English father. With her father working as a journalist, her family traveled across Europe, living approximately three years in different countries, including, in chronological order, Italy, Belgium, France and Spain. Throughout this period, together with her elder brother Xavier and younger sister Juliet, Zoe attended the British educational system in local private schools. Thus, Zoe grew up speaking French and English at home, and the local language in the streets. These were extremely enriching years, as her family explored their cultural surroundings and integrated into local life. Many holidays and long weekends were spent discovering the countryside, villages, museums, churches, and local festivities and traditions, camping, cycling, windsurfing, often accompanied by their numerous pets - ducks, hens, rabbits and dog. In all these different cultural contexts, Zoe felt naturally at home.

While Zoe regularly visited relatives in the UK and France, attachment with the other countries hence became integral parts of her identity. At the same time, her parents having acquired a house in the Basque Country close to her maternal grandparents, Zoe came to see this area as a more settled base. Early in her childhood, she made it her mission to one day learn Basque, in an effort to get closer to the people there.

At fifteen years old, Zoe was sent together with her sister to boarding school in the UK, in an effort by her parents to give them a more stable education and English roots. Bryanston, in Dorset, was a liberal and active co-ed school, where their brother had already completed his A levels. Nonetheless, boarding life was a shock to Zoe who had been used to enormous freedom and different modes of thinking. Suddenly, her so far unquestioned English identity was challenged by her more ‘real’ English classmates, who sometimes teased about her perceived French accent! Bryanston life was a truly enriching time where, amongst other things, Zoe learnt to play the drums, further developed her talent in athletics, drama, photography and ceramics.

A level exams completed, Zoe prepared to take a gap year before university. She set off as a volunteer English teacher to the provincial town of Cholula, south of Mexico City, where she spent six months sharing a room with three other volunteers in the compound of a Mexican family of ten children. Once the challenge of teaching classes of thirty nine-year-old kids in the morning and hormone-imbibed teenagers in the afternoon was over for that period, Zoe set off traveling on her own to the north of Mexico City and then, together with her father, to the south of the peninsula.

Zoe finally left Mexico enamoured with the country, sensitive to the struggle of poverty, class and racial discrimination, and with a desire to one day return in order to deepen her understanding of its people. On her way back to Europe, Zoe took a transit to Texas from where she took a Greyhound to California to visit her Basque relatives who had settled there a few decades previously. Finally Zoe returned to France in time to see her maternal grandmother before she passed away from cancer.

The rest of her gap year was spent working in a French bakery in Oxford, walking to St James of Compostella and working as a trilingual guide at Lourdes. Having been rejected by Oxford university where she had applied to read Spanish and French literature, Zoe opted to go to Edinburgh university. Her final choice of studying Social Anthropology there was made on the basis of her numerous exposures to living and communicating with people of various backgrounds. Her personal experience made it clear in her mind the importance of making sense of a link with people of different cultures and getting to grips with identity as an empirical concept.

The university dissertation was finally the opportunity to focus on the Basque Country. She set off with the objective to finally learn the language and discover local life. Researching social and political dynamics in a rural community, she was kindly welcomed by local families with whom she was able to live as an extra member of the household. During her time in the area, she came to associate intimately with the struggle to keep alive a rich and dynamic Basque language and culture. She helped out in numerous Basque cultural initiatives, including working with television and radio.

Despite this awakening and sense of personal commitment to the defense and promotion of linguistic minority communities, Zoe still felt quite at a loss with what to do next when she finally graduated from Edinburgh university at 22 years of age. She took up a series of random jobs including working as a fashion model and at the stock exchange in the city of London, only to eventually wake up at her evident lack of fit. Finally, a random application to work as a researcher for the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages led her to pack up her bags yet again to head for Brussels.

Her year there was a moment of rediscovery, after having lived in Brussels with her family when a child. This time, she explored the Brussels world of ‘Europe’, European institutions and their politicians, technocrats and lobbyists and all these people from different countries who work around it, a multilingual world where her own fluency in five languages was for once seen with more ordinariness. Nonetheless she remained rather frustrated with the often stark segregation of this Euro/international world and that of ‘ordinary’ Belgians. While her research work in the institutional domain was certainly interesting, Zoe also felt perturbed by the evident gap between politics and the people it was meant to represent. It was at this point that Zoe contemplated returning to academia in order to produce grassroots research to analyse identity and politics from the bottom up, and serve as a challenge and complement to the political and institutional ivory tower view of ordinary life. In this vein, she applied to do a PhD at the European University Institute, in Florence, where she was accepted to begin in September 1998, at 24 years old.

Zoe has always expressed a keen interest in fine arts. This was fed at an early age by her parents who are themselves curious art lovers. Her mother trained as a modern painter in Madrid and her father is presently managing their joint budding gallery initiative alongside his job. On innumerable family trips to exhibitions, Zoe would remain transfixed by certain paintings, wondering how on earth these had been produced. Since the age of fifteen, Zoe has collected a growing series of sketch books filled with her drawings and written observations. However, discouraged by the lack of teaching of traditional techniques in most contemporary art schools, Zoe never seriously contemplated following artistic training. Everywhere she was, she took part in short and sporadic drawing and sculpture classes, but remained restless and therefore unconvinced. In Florence, she was mesmerized by the beauty of the art around her and, in her final and fourth year of PhD, she discovered Charles Cecil’s studio. This was a serious eye-opener, as here at last she found a place dedicated to the serious study of naturalistic oil painting.

Nonetheless, it still took Zoe a few years to pluck up the courage to admit to her own artistic nature. Still committed to her anthropological work, and to financial independence, she persevered in her doctoral research, which brought her back to the Basque Country to deepen her investigation of the construction and expression of identity amongst inhabitants of a thriving community on the FrancoSpanish frontier, and how these are affected by political attempts to dismantle boundaries in the context of the European Union. She defended her thesis in September 2002, subsequently accepted an assistantship under Professor Helen Wallace at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Research, in Florence, and published her thesis as a book in March 2004.

In September 2002, she joined Charles Cecil’s school as a half-day student, studying sculpture for three terms and figure-drawing for two terms. In June 2004, she left the school and, in September, began sharing a studio space with three other professionally-trained painters. Here she started finally to do her own painting, putting into practice the various tricks she had picked up from her time interacting with other students at the Cecil school.

Zoe continues to do research, employed since September 2004 as a fellow at the European University Institute with her former thesis supervisor Professor Michael Keating for a research project comparing different indigeneous minority linguistic communities located in European borders. In her painting, Zoe wishes to combine anthropology and art. She seeks to paint people in their natural space with a personal empathetic touch. Zoe dreams of developing her drawing and painting, in a continuous struggle to express nature and the soule. Conscious of her own integrity as an artist, Zoe seeks to avoid pretence and sentimentalism. Art is for Zoe a search for beauty, remaining grounded, looking at real life and real people today with subtle naturalistic sensitivity.