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Volume 46, Number 1January/February 1995

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The Gardens of Marie Balian

Written by Jane M. Friedman

She is a small lady with wavy copper hair, a grandmother. She wears prim suits with pearls, and says she doesn't make a move without her husband's consent. When she greets you, she delicately shakes your hand and kisses you on both cheeks, French-style. She is one of the pre-eminent artists of the Middle East.

Marie Balian, 68, an Armenian whose family originally hails from a small town in western Turkey, came to world attention in 1992 when the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States, paid tribute to her work with a six-month show.

Before that and since, day after day, in a sun-flooded studio not far from Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, Marie Balian puts on an oversized men's shirt and sketches new visions of gazelles and peacocks, or a new configuration of trees and flowers, on white paper.

Although tourists wander in and out of the showroom attached to her studio, few are aware that here, in an adjacent room, an artist is quietly working.

But "Views of Paradise," as her Smithsonian exhibition was titled, provided evidence enough. It included more than 20 wall-size panels that, together, presented an artist's conception of the ultimate garden. The show occupied the largest space the Smithsonian has ever devoted to contemporary Middle Eastern art.

"Views of Paradise" was also unusual in that the art was not on canvas, wood, hardboard or metal. Marie Balian continues a centuries-old Middle Eastern tradition of painting garden scenes on ceramic tiles. Typically, such scenes, intricate and quite formal, covered the interior or exterior walls of mosques, churches or palaces.

Although not Muslim, Marie Balian is continuing an Islamic style said to have originated in Persia. It flourished in Turkey in the 18th century, and was brought to Jerusalem in this century by three Armenian families who have passed the techniques from parent to child.

Although tile painting existed for centuries as a craft, Marie Balian stands alone in modern times as having elevated, it to the status of fine art, experts say.

"Marie Balian continues an art of ancient times," says Ora Van Beek, an ethnologist who discovered the artist and her glazed tile panels in East Jerusalem more than 25 years ago. "I believe that Marie Balian is here to remind us of the glorious beauty of nature."

"I regard Marie Balian as an artist," says Gus Van Beek, the ethnologist's archeologist husband and curator of the Smithsonian show. "We have never seen a tile painter equal to her."

Although Balian has been applying paint to clay for more than 25 years, only lately has she herself become aware she is a link in an ancient chain, and that she has played a crucial role in rescuing one branch of a centuries-old tradition from oblivion. "It's very easy for me," she said of her work, while standing amidst the wall panels that hung in the Smithsonian's International Gallery. "It's as if I had already done this in an earlier age, like the fourth, fifth or sixth century."

The Middle Eastern technique of painting on ceramics actually developed in the third millennium before Christ. According to Gus Van Beek, who did the research for the show, painted ceramic elements first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, where they adorned the exteriors of buildings.

By the 13th century after Christ, says Van Beek, Persian artists were favoring garden scenes for their painted ceramic tiles, and this style spread—thanks in part to the invading Mongols—throughout the northern tier of the Islamic world, from Persia to Turkey, then southwest through the Maghrib and into al-Andalus, in southern Spain, where some of the most mesmerizing tile painting is still being done today (See Aramco World, March-April 1992).

Experts say this style of decorative art—on tiles as well as in carpets and manuscript illumination—developed partly because of Islam's ban on depicting animals or humans. Most artists in the Muslim world thus eschewed media such as oil painting and sculpture, opting instead for abstract decorative motifs, often elaborate geometric or floral arabesques. However, in some parts of the Islamic lands, says Van Beek, observance of the ban on depicting animals somehow lapsed, and the arts began to include, now and then, birds and animals.

"The style evolved," speculates Ora Van Beek, "because much of the Middle East is very dry. So people might be willing to spend a lot on a garden, with flora and fauna all around"—and, one can safely speculate, on gardens of the imagination as well.

In the 1400's, Armenian artisans in a small Turkish town named Kutahya developed a distinctive "Islamic" style in decorative ceramics. A century later, they were competing with rivals in nearby Iznik as purveyors of exquisite ceramics to the Ottoman court.

By the 18th century, the Kutahya craftsmen had largely displaced Iznik and developed their style into one characterized by airy, unpretentious designs of small medallions, dainty flowers and geometric forms in yellow, green, turquoise, black, red and cobalt blue on g a translucent white background. With exports to England and France, their renown grew. In 1917, when the newly installed British authorities in Palestine invited three Armenian families to come and repair the 16th-century tiles in Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, they accepted.

British interest in the Dome of the Rock had been enhanced by the discovery on the 3000-year-old site of an ancient pottery kiln. Armenian potter David Ohannessian first examined the kiln and determined that, with restoration, it could still be used. He called upon two more families to assist him in the project.

But when the Balian family joined the Ohannessian and Karakashian families in Jerusalem's Old City, they suddenly found themselves out of work. The British Pro-Jerusalem Society had failed to raise sufficient funds to renovate the kiln. Nonetheless, returning to Turkey was no longer possible. The families decided to stay put. They banded together to produce locally what they knew best: ceramics painted gracefully in deep blues, aquas, rich greens and yellows in a markedly Islamic style. Operating out of a workshop on the Old City's Via Dolorosa, they painted tiles both large and small for the walls of the city's buildings.

In 1922, the Balians and Karakashians split from the Ohannessian family and established a workshop of their own just north of the Old City walls on Nablus Road. There, Megerditch Karakashian, the painter, was responsible for decoration, while Neshan Balian, the potter, shaped vessels on his wheel and fired the tiles. The business flourished, producing bowls and vases decorated with fawns, peacocks and swirling garlands.

But the partnership did not survive the ascendance of a new generation. In 1966, the Balians and Karakashians split. Responsibility for the Balian atelier passed to Neshan Balian's son Setrak. But although the Karakashians had a master painter in the family, the Balians, long experts in pottery, did not.

Enter Marie Balian, then aged 39. Her branch of the Balian family had fled Turkey on foot to Greece in 1917. From there, they took ship for France, and Marie was born and grew up in Lyons.

"I started drawing when I was six years old," she recalled. "At 10, I was doing portraits." Later, her mother sent her to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In. 1953, she met her distant cousin Setrak on his way to study ceramic engineering in England. They fell in love, and the following year they married in Bethlehem.

Twelve years later, Marie Balian was allowed finally to assume the mantle of master painter at the Balian atelier. The business was now called Palestinian Pottery and, at last, it came into its own.

"When I started," she recounts, "the style was a bit boring. I tried not to copy the Kutahya style but to renew it."

Seeking new sources of inspiration, Balian traveled to Jericho, where she saw the eighth-century mosaic floor in the excavated Hisham Palace. Here, in the winter residence of the Umayyad caliph Hisham, she studied a vivid rendition of the tree of life, showing two gazelles grazing on one side of the tree and a lion savaging a gazelle on the other. She took that theme home, put brush to tile, and gave it a fresh look.

Then she added movement to what had traditionally been static compositions. Suddenly, gazelles were prancing, peacocks were preening, garlands were flowing. And symmetry gave way to dynamic asymmetry.

Customers came from further and further away. Diplomats, journalists and travelers heard about Palestinian Pottery and flooded it with orders. In 1969, while on a dig near Gaza, the Van Beeks came to Jerusalem and to Palestinian Pottery.

Thus began a 'long relationship in which Ora Van Beek became a muse to Balian, encouraging her to sign her work and to experiment more and more.

"On one visit to the atelier," says Gus Van Beek, "I heard Ora scream. She was standing in the Balian museum, where they have some of the family treasures, looking at a tile panel with tears in her eyes. Ora said to Marie, 'This is your art form. Why not do more of this?'"

As Marie Balian began to paint tile murals, "her creativity blossomed," says Van Beek, "and then we thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have an exhibit in the Smithsonian?"'

Two years later, the exhibit opened in the Smithsonian's Ripley Center. The effect of the panels was of an idyllic Levantine paradise glimpsed through a window, or perhaps through an archway. It was so well-received that the gallery extended its stay.

Marie Balian does not speak easily of herself or her achievements, but the exhibition prompted her to look back at her life as a painter. Sitting on a bench near a gurgling fountain, she pondered her legacy.

"My contribution to Middle Eastern art," she says, "is all the designs. They are all original except for the Hisham Palace. I tried to bring more Armenian art to these panels—by adding trees and birds—to renovate this art, to bring my own cachet."

"I'm so happy when I start something new that I forget where I am," she explained. "My inspiration comes only from seeing nature. For example, a bird. You can put your soul on it and fly someplace else in peace."

Balian's style, experts say, fuses the Armenian tradition with its animals and birds with the purer Islamic style of arabesques.

"Marie is painting ancient art in modern times," said Ora Van Beek. "She had the good fortune of living in a family environment that nurtured her talent. And she's been living shoulder to shoulder with Palestinian women who embroider a whole world of flora and fauna their dresses." (See Aramco World, January-February 1991)

"But she has advanced this art form because she's a modern woman. The animals in her pictures have human characteristics."

Neshan, Marie's 36-year-old son, represents the third generation of Balian potters, and says he feels compelled to continue the family tradition. He has studied ceramic engineering, and has been working in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., designing Balian painted tiles for custom-made kitchens and baths. Still, he feels the pull of the Middle East.

"The unique thing that my mother has is the primitive style when painting on tiles. It's her niche, with no competition. She still has a lot of geometric and symmetrical Arab influence, but the asymmetric floral movement is all my mother's. Here, I experiment a lot with new methods and materials," he says, "but in Jerusalem, I sit at the same wheel where my grandfather sat. You can't ignore that."

Of the original three Armenian families from Kutahya, only the Balians continue the craft in its original form. The Karakashians, on the Via Dolorosa since the 1960's, still hand-paint their wares but buy the vessels ready-made. In Hebron, a profusion of factories now scrap over what has become a lucrative pottery market, copying the Islamic-Turkish-Armenian motifs with assembly-line precision and selling the wares in the tourist shops of Amman and Jerusalem.

At Palestinian Pottery, Setrak Balian, now in his 70's, shapes the vessels on his wheel and fires them in the family kiln, day after day. Gradually he is ceding the wheel to his son Neshan who returned recently from the US. Marie, when she is not working on a tile design, outlines the decoration on the pots. Colors are painted in by younger Palestinian craftspeople the Balians have trained. The pots are then dipped in glaze and fired a second time, the way it has been done for centuries.

Will the tradition that started nearly 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia, took root in 15th-century Turkey and thrived 500 years later in Jerusalem find a bridge into the next century? Marie Balian is optimistic.

"It will survive," she says. "It survived until now. The world renews itself. One artist dies and another one comes."

Balian Pottery Studio: www.palestinianpottery.com.

Washington freelancer Jane M. Friedman was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for CNN and The Christian Science Monitor.

This article appeared on pages 14-19 of the January/February 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1995 images.