She was riding a bicycle when she heard the sirens go off. Finding the nearest designated bunker, she dropped the bicycle and went inside. This was Lyon, France, and a young Marie Alexanian was wondering if she was going to be late for her class at the Beaux Arts (Academy of Art) where she had been studying for the past few months. “Damn those German bombers,” she told herself.
She won several prizes at the academy, but unfortunately, and at the despair of her teachers, could not continue because of financial considerations. She had to go to work at the local textile factory like her widowed mother, Manoushag, to make ends meet.
The Second World War ended and a young, handsome Setrag Balian was on his way to England, from Palestine, to study under the world famous potter and ceramist Bernard Leach. His father, Neshan Balian, who had co-established the Palestinian Pottery of Jerusalem, had told him to pass by Lyon to find relatives from their city of Kutahya, Turkey, which they had been forced to leave because of the 1915 Genocide. Setrag found his relatives and met Marie Balian.
My grandmother, Manoushag, swore on the Bible that more than 40 potential suitors, including doctors, lawyers, and wealthy businessmen, had asked for her daughter’s hand in marriage, but it was my father Setrag who stole her heart. After finishing his studies in England, Setrag and Marie got engaged in Lyon, and together they travelled back to Palestine and got married in Bethlehem.
Marie Balian was fascinated by what she saw at the Palestinian Pottery: colours, designs, flowers, and animals - all interacting together to produce beautiful ceramics that were admired by clients. The problem was that she was not allowed to go into the room where the girls were painting the pottery pieces. This was the agreement between the two partners of the Palestinian Pottery. One family (Balian) was responsible for the production of the pottery pieces (throwing on the wheel, glazes, firing, etc.), while the other was responsible for the designs. Unfortunately she was a Balian.
In 1964 the partnership dissolved, and Marie Balian started to explore the new artistic freedom and challenges that she found at the Palestinian Pottery. The gazelles lost their static look. Flowers danced, no longer bound by repetitive symmetry. The whole design repertoire of the pottery was transformed into bold curves and colours of originality. Gradually, Marie delved into the world of ceramic tile murals. Unique hand-painted murals from as small as 30 x 30 cm to as large as 3 x 3 metres. Tile murals full of bright colours, dancing palm trees, and magnificent peacocks.
With her unique artistic talent and Setrag Balian’s expertise on the throwing wheel, Marie transformed the Palestinian Pottery to a world-renowned ceramic art institution. Worldwide dignitaries and local prominent individuals made up the list of clients. The President’s Office in Ramallah, Dr. Nabil Shaath, Queen Dina of Jordan, the late Ted Kennedy, Nobel Prize winner of chemistry, Roger Kornberg, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and many others have all been exposed to her magnificent ceramics. Several books have been written about Marie and her unique ceramic style, especially her outstanding ceramic tile murals. Wide media coverage has also been given to her in such prominent publications as The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and Aramco Monthly.
On one of his regular trips to the studio, the late Teddy Kollek - who used to bring over his VIP guests - came with Marc Chagall. Chagall with all his entourage went into the painting room and sat on my mother’s chair and started to paint a ceramic tile. As he hesitated at the choice of a colour from the palette, my mother said, “Maitre … Don’t you think brown would be a good choice?” After a few seconds of dead silence and the collective gasp of his entourage, Chagall replied, “Vous avez raison, Madame.” This was a moment of triumph and vindication for Marie, as was the exhibition of her works and that of the Palestinian Pottery at the world famous Smithsonian Museum (S. Dillon Ripley Center) in Washington, DC, in 1992. This was followed by several exhibitions of her spectacular tile murals at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, as well as the 2006 exhibition in Alicante, Spain, sponsored by Bancaja, one of the largest banks in Spain.
In 2004 the Jerusalem Municipality made known its request to create the Open Museum project of Jerusalem, in which seven major pieces of exterior art were chosen to be placed within walking distance of each other throughout Jerusalem. Marie Balian was chosen as an artist from East Jerusalem, and her breath-taking mural entitled Vision of Paradise, with its 1,000 ceramic tiles, decorates a wall on Koresh Street in West Jerusalem.
Although at 85 her health is not what it used to be, Marie still has the energy to come to the Palestinian Pottery once a week to chat with her art students. If you are lucky enough you might see her sketching a beautiful running gazelle or an elegant peacock.