If the dictionary had images, Bridgette Zou would appear under the term “optimism”. A children book’s author, the artist behind This Feels Nice, a daily positivity painting project, and the full-time Brand Manager at Make It Nice, the restaurant group that includes Nomad and Eleven Madison Park, Bridgette is her own best embodiment of her catchphrase, “Live your best life now.”
I met Bridgette through a mutual friend during an adventurous weekend upstate spent practicing Japanese Butoh dance (post-World War II avant-garde dance), Kintsugi (also Japanese, the art of repairing broken ceramics in the search for wabi-sabi) and playing Bananagrams. I distinctly remember her showing up with a huge hat and a portable glowing cloud lamp called Little. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I did know that I liked it.
She is the ultimate connector — every person who knows Bridgette has been matched with someone who Bridgette thinks will inspire, help or delight them. Conversations with B are punctuated by offers to connect me with someone cool, ideas, witticisms and occasional statements like “I like trash” (she really likes trash).
She is entirely her own special blend of person, and her vibrancy plays out in all facets of her life; through her career as the Brand Manager at Make It Nice to her art, which is entirely in the colors blue, white and yellow to honor her Chinese background. She loves McDonalds (she owns a McDonalds themed neck-tie which we sadly weren’t able to include in this shoot), and tchotchkes and has consistently surprised me with the way that she handles the hurdles in life - with an even head and a positive attitude.
East Village, NYC. May 2019.
Edited for clarity.
JT: Tell me about the relationship you have with your day to day job and the things you do for This Feels Nice. Is your job something you consider secondary to your art or do they run parallel?
BZ: I really think that everything you do in your life is on the same wavelength. Whatever I bring into my job, whether that’s creative problem solving or new ideas, I get from my personal life and vice versa. I really believe in inspiration and positivity, and I think that’s how you should approach any project you do, whether that’s a full time job or writing a children’s book. I think they have to work in tandem with each other.
JT: Are there any ways they play on each other or are they more separate?
BZ: I think that I get my best ideas from people and experiences that I know nothing about. The world of hospitality is something I didn’t know much about until I moved to New York, and as a result, I’ve met so many interesting people. They’ve texturized my life in a way that I didn’t know was possible. I think because I identify as an artist, I approach projects really differently.
JT: Is the plan to take art full-time eventually, or do you always want to have a job? How do you see that playing out?
BZ: I don’t really know. I think if you asked me four or five years ago what I thought my career would look like, all the things that I’ve done that have brought me the most transformative experiences... I could never have imagined them I think it’s tough for me to say how I imagine the balance of my life to play out because I want to be open to whatever comes along. I do think it’s important to experience all of it - working with a big company, a small company, working by yourself, with a partner or a friend. Those types of environments and relationships can teach you a lot more about yourself.
JT: And why do you think you need variety?
BZ: Maybe this is cheesy, but variety is the spice of life! I have a mentor who said this about comprehension, you may think you have a certain skill set or a certain set of values and the only way to figure that out is to try lots of different things in a lot of different ways. I think the people around you, the subject matter, the city - those are all ways of testing your comprehension.
JT: I like that a lot. Variety is the spice of life. Maybe I should get that tattooed on my back. I would love for you to tell the story of how you started This Feels Nice?
BZ: Maybe four or five years ago I was living at home in DC, and my parents sat me down and said, “You’ve always made the right, super pragmatic choices, but you were meant to be an artist.” They had said this to me a lot but in my younger years, and being naive, I genuinely never thought that it was practical and pushed it away. They said it enough and one day it just clicked. I quit my job and I said if I was going to try this, I should be in New York. I moved here and I really had no idea what I was doing. I had an art residency and an apartment. I just started reading a lot of quotes that I loved and reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
JT: Very stoic of you.
BZ: I started looking at Instagram and these quotes, and some of them were just typed up on a page, some of them had the same iconography on the back. I thought, you know what, I’m going to paint these. It felt like the right thing to do, so I started painting them and started putting them on the internet. I need to hold myself accountable and give myself parameters. I wanted to see what happened if I tried to paint one quote per day every day for an entire year. I wanted to put myself out there.
Also because goodvibes.com was a quarter million dollars. I was not trying to get into a bidding war. I first took quotes that I liked, and then I started making quotes that I wanted to be out there. It led me on this journey. Originally wanted to publish them as a book. It ended up leading me to publish my own children’s book.
JZ: That’s amazing.
BZ: It’s also blue and white. I think whatever path you go down, there’s a lot of scenery on the side.
JT: So I find it really incredible that your parents were the one to put you on this path. Especially being Asian, it’s not something you hear people usually say. Can you talk to me about the journey you took from seeing it as an impractical hobby to really embodying your parent’s suggestions?
BZ: I have a journal entry from the first day I moved here. It’s been really great to be able to go back to look at it. When I was growing up, I really really loved art and it was something that was my cornerstone. However, nobody I saw growing up was a full-time artist. I realized now that one of the reasons why I was so hesitant about embracing being an artist was because I didn’t know what type of artist I could be. In the environment I grew up in, there were art curators, there were really traditional gallery-type painters. I think the path for a creative person is so uncertain in the best way - it’s really tough. It’s Pick Your Own Adventure. At the same time you’re finding yourself. As an artist, unless you’re making work all the time and sourcing leads and putting yourself out there repeatedly, the work doesn’t just come for you. It doesn’t just drop in your lap. There is no strict ladder, and that was tough. When you’re 18, 21, 25 - you’re still trying to figure out yourself and your career and your style, it’s a lot of things to figure out in tandem.
JT: I think from a young age you’re taught that careers are a linear path and you go through this very structured system. From going to school, college to a job. Being an artist is almost the opposite of that - there is no playbook. Everyone is so different because it’s so specific to what you do. Has that been difficult to find your path?
BZ: Someone once said this to me that my path is always going to be on target and I’m going to get there by going off course. They said in sailing it’s like tacking. You’re going back and forth to go to this final destination and I think that’s what happened for me.
I feel like I didn’t answer your question about my parents. They’re my mentors and icons and knowing that they’re proud makes me feel so grateful and so lucky. They worked really hard their entire lives and still do. I many ways, I struggle on picking things that feel very practical and pragmatic while really wanting to express myself creatively and they’ve always wanted me to embrace my creative part. It’s tough to take a chance on yourself, having them has been really amazing.
They always painted being a painter as this amazing flexible lifestyle, they gave me a piece of advice where they were like “we know a lot of people who have had ideal careers, and they have all these resources, but they still wish they had pursued their dreams and given themselves that chance.
In life, you’re really lucky if you find your talent and a dream you want and you’re courageous enough to go after it. Frankly, there’s a lot of prescribed paths that are always going to be there but forging your own is really tough.
JT: It’s also very beautiful. I was recently thinking what what my life has become. I’ve been vintage shopping since I was eleven, I always thought it was an impractical hobby at best. To fast forward and have this vintage store and to have second hand be a part of my life is so beautiful because I never thought I could create the life I want. Nobody taught me that there are paths that you can create for yourself if you have the desire and the tenacity. It was a lack of imagination on my part to think that I couldn’t create the life I wanted by indulging in the things I considered mere “impractical hobbies”.
BZ: One of the things you were saying - using your imagination. I’m really glad that I can’t imagine what my life is going to look like in the long term, because if I was just constricted by what my imagination thought what success would be in four or five years from now, I probably wouldn’t have done a lot of the amazing things that have brought me the most joy and transformation.
I’ve always been compelled to blue and white and I know it’s because of Chinese porcelain and Islamic poetry. I felt like that was the color scheme I wanted to go with, and I remember getting a piece of feedback from a really famous editor. I’m so lucky she even responded and gave me feedback, but one of the points she said was that I should paint in full color. It caters to the largest demographic and is the most engaging. I remember in that moment feeling really viscerally conflicted because, I thought, “She has a point. Why am I confining myself to this color scheme?” when really I was also feeling this deep part of me that felt like it was the right thing to do. So I just did what I thought felt right at the time, and I think there’s an interesting idea of picking right or wrong or the good path or the bad path, but life isn’t binary like that. You just make a decision at the time and everything else flows around it. I feel the same way about making art or the choices we make now in our personal and professional lives.
JT: Even if you don’t have a previous guide to go off or the confidence that it’s the right decision.
BZ: Exactly. Sometimes you just have to go for it.
JT: I was listening to The Cut’s recent podcast about Motherhood and regret. They played a therapy session of a woman who didn’t want children, succumbed to the pressures around her and had one, and is now realizing she could have gone without the child. What really resonated with me was what that the therapist had said in response to the mother’s yearning for a different life. She’s not thinking of all the challenges and struggles that would have come with that other path - the childless one. I think that’s so interesting - if you’re making decisions based on what you’re missing out on, you’re not basing your decision off the right facts. You’re always going to be missing out on something, you’re not going to have a perfect life. I feel like I’m always trying to optimize my decisions for the perfect outcome.
BZ: I think it’s so tough. I call New York, and I think this is going to be a really polarizing statement - the best worst place in the world. Everyday you wake up in this incredible city with so many amazing people, and you can either choose to be the best version of yourself, or the worst. Being your best self means you show up every day and you try a little bit better. I say this phrase, “Live your best life now,” I don’t mean live palatially or make crazy decisions but it means trying a little bit every day to make yourself better. It could be a tiny thing like making your bed, waking early or just being nice to someone. Or you can fall to the wayside and just pick what you’ve always known.
That’s fine too, but I think at a certain point it makes a very difficult life for you and New York is one of those places. It begs everything from you all the time. But, in terms of regret - I find it a very interesting word. It’s a very elastic word. I think at any moment, you’re entitled to change your mind. The only person that can do that is you. I love Brene Brown, one of the things she says is “you show up.” You put yourself out there, and putting yourself out there is really tough. It’s something I’m trying to do more and more of, and I think that’s the best way to hedge against that experience - I’m doing air quotes and nobody can see it - of “regret”. When you show up and put it all out there, you asked and you tried and that’s the best you can do.
JT: The alternative is you not trying and you’re in the safe lane, but you’re not going to get anywhere closer to where you want to be.
BZ: In New York there’s so many amazing people and everyone is so special, but at the same time I feel like none of us are special. We all have the same opportunities to manifest our dreams. Obviously life is very, caveat, random. The family you’re born into, the opportunities you have, where you live, it’s different. In saying that though, I don’t think there’s much of a difference between me and someone else. People ask me how I started This Feels Nice or how I wrote my book and I always start with the same thing - I had an idea. Everyone has an idea, but I just decided to go along that path. I had expectations and dreams. “Maybe this book will be this huge thing.” As soon as let go of that expectation, I learned so much doing it and seeing it to the end, compared to focusing on whatever I was expecting the destination to be. So yeah, just try. Stick with it.
JT: You talk about openness a lot - being open to receiving things that happen to come by you Is that because you have tried to follow a set path before or an expectation, only to be let down?
BZ: I think I’ve always been an optimist, but I also think you can be a learned optimist. Being optimistic even when you’re in a low mood requires so much work and effort, especially when you encounter something you don’t know. There’s a lot of things that I thought might be a magic or silver bullet - who doesn’t want that? Here’s exactly what you should do and a plan to get there. The crazy thing is that there is no path, you get there how you think is best. My only guiding principle is “Does it feel good?”
JT: This feels nice!
BZ: Literally. You get out what you put back in. I think you attract the right energy, the right people and you should put it out too. If you don’t ask, you probably won’t get it.
JT: My final question is: I feel like the way you’ve talked about yourself and your belief system - This Feels Nice feels like an embodiment of who you are - an eternal optimist. Everything I see on This Feels Nice makes me feel better. What’s your intention? What are you hoping to spark in other people?
BZ: Just that a little of magic is everywhere. At the end of the day, all the opportunity really comes from us - but it’s okay not to be strong all the time, and honestly life is tough. It requires all of your energy, all the time, and we’re not all strong people. We all feel the same fears and angst and terrible disappointments...obviously in your own way, but there are people out there that believe in you.