Within wood panels, Marsha Balian weaves intimate found-object tales
Posted on March 9, 2022 by Mary Corbin
Artist Marsha Balian creates playful compositions with found objects, collage, and paint on wood panels. Curious characters emerge from a theatrical backdrop of pattern, color and texture, posing as if they’ve been waiting for our arrival with our single question, “What’s your story?”
“I never want to be too literal since stories in life don’t always have a happy ending. I play with humor as much as possible,” Balian told 48 Hills.
Retired from a 36-year career in health care, primarily as a nurse practitioner for Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center, she attributes her former daily immersion in myriad tales as a contributing factor to her narrative style. Nothing fascinates her more than hearing other people’s stories.
Originally from San Diego, Balian is a self-taught artist living in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. She thinks of herself as a hunter-gatherer in search of interesting materials, discovering the debris of lives moving on, at flea markets and on street corners. Filling her studio—an ADU (accessory dwelling unit) in her backyard with large windows and lovely greenery views—Balian works her magic with her treasure trove of found materials.
Objects, including children’s blocks and dolls, antique household fixtures like doorknobs, faucet washers and potato mashers, found paper scraps, old book pages and stamps, are just some of things that inhabit Balian’s artwork. Assembled into surreal narratives, we are rendered voyeurs peeking at the remnants of someone’s secrets.
Balian works on several pieces at once in a series, with one piece leading to another, containing a common thread. In her signature wood panel work, Balian begins with a theme and lets serendipity take her along for the ride. Some works built from all manner of boxes—wine crates, cigar boxes, matchboxes — are inspired in part by the work of mid-20th century assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, whom she counts as a creative influence.
Marsha Balian, ‘Lucy and Babs’
Having recently been given three small wooden drawers from a child’s chest, Balian studied them for weeks before deciding to use each one as a frame with a smaller wooden panel within. Painting each surface to converse with the images on the added interior panel has created a complex and interesting challenge for the artist.
“Since I never plan anything in advance, all of this could change as I move forward. The work usually tells me what it needs,” she said.
During the chaos of the pandemic, Balian said art making provided a refuge, a release and a relief.
“I have been very productive, in part because so many distractions are no longer available and in part because art making can soothe anxiety,” she said.
Initially needing an expressive focus to deal with the complexity of the times, Balian created a series spoofing all that she calls “Pseudo-Science,” playing with imagery that relates to how people made sense of a confusing world in the past: Tarot cards, phrenology and sleight of hand. Following that, she worked on a set of self-portraits with an intention not to replicate how she looks, but rather to affect a window into interior space and notions of identity.
Marsha Balian, ‘The Usefulness of a Clean White Shirt’
As a child, Balian was captivated by the evocative power of photography. Combing through her parents’ piles of sepia-toned photos, she always wondered, “Who was this person?” How was their life?” Similarly, in another recent series, “Lost and Found,” making use of hundreds of antique studio photographs in her own collection, Balian created new lives for the anonymous characters. Leaving some mystery, she simply suggests a narrative that the viewer can pick up and develop further for themself.
The pandemic also led Balian to think about the role of art and the experience of artmaking. From that perspective, her new series of works on totem-shaped wood panels, “Scenic Route,” exhibited at Transmission Gallery in West Oakland, invites us to come along on a visual journey.
“Art won’t necessarily make up for the losses we ourselves have suffered or the need to bear witness to the suffering of others, but it can function as an escape of sorts, a visual passage to another place, to something better, something engaging and perhaps scenic,” she said.
Balian dedicates massive energy to her work, sometimes doing little else. When a series is complete, she will pause and direct her energy toward other things like writing, which she also loves. In short order, however, she is called to return to the studio. And after avoiding it for years, Balian is a new convert to Instagram, embracing the opportunity for connection. The immediate feedback has been a boon for Balian and a great antidote to the isolation that artists sometimes face.
“Conversation in an artistic dialogue has been amazing,” she said.
Taking in the work of Balian is a treat, at once entertaining and mysterious as we are invited into intimate space. Her narratives nudge us toward reflection on our own histories, the heaps of detritus and ephemera of a human life, the things one cherishes or leaves behind. At the same time, it’s like a visit to the circus in the heyday of Barnum & Bailey with its cast of odd characters, dreamy sets, and fantastical performances.
Exhibiting her work nationwide since 2004, she is a member of Transmission Gallery in Oakland and recently exhibited work at Vita Collage in Pt. Reyes Station. Upcoming shows include an exhibition in Formentera, Spain, a show at The Drawing Room in the Mission, and a juried show at Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica. For more information, visit her website at marshabalian.com and Instagram.
In the Studio with Marsha Balian
Posted on October 9, 2020 by Dennis Hanshew
Walking in the Dark
Marsha Balian and Patricia Sonnino at the Gearbox Gallery
October 16 – November 14, 2020
Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 5:00 p.m.
I never know quite where to begin these interviews but I think we’ll just begin with your statement from your website [link below]. One thing I picked out is that you say there are, “…three elements that compel … [my] art.” You go on to designate them as mystery, invention, and story. I see all three going on in your work and the most compelling part for me is the mystery in the storytelling. It seems to me that the story is finding itself in the process.
I’m not trying to convey mystery in my artwork; rather, it’s the mystery of the making of art, the process itself. My work invariably has some narrative elements or perhaps fragments from which people put together their own stories. I never want to tell people what to think, what to feel, in my artwork.
So, are you saying that it is the viewer’s invention from the elements you provide?
It’s my invention because I am self-taught. And because I work with mostly found and disparate objects, I’m the one who has to find some way of putting it all together. That’s the power for me, as the person making the art; I love that process. But it isn’t my story.
Another thing you say in your statement, “…a riddle to be solved, an equation to be resolved, a conundrum to be settled…” So you are also seeking something, maybe it isn’t the story, but you’re resolving something in your own mind.
It is the process itself that I find really compelling. Making art for me is about problem-solving. When making art you solve one problem and create another. That is the process until you work it out to your own satisfaction, maybe like a jigsaw puzzle.
OK, I get that. It’s like a chess game. Every move elicits the next move.
Right. And I find that very compelling and addictive. I never have a blueprint. It is always a process of discovery along the way.
I’m going to backtrack a bit. You’ve done this group of work that you’ve titled Pseudoscience. That is obviously a reference to what we are going through right now: COVID, the pandemic, and all the crazy misinformation we’ve been getting.
It absolutely is.
So, in that sense, you have begun with something. Some sort of general idea or theme.
I almost always work in series. A theme doesn’t necessarily present itself to me before I start the work but once I have begun it will often suggest a theme to me. That’s what happened with this Pseudoscience series. All of us are affected by this crisis and it’s going to inevitably filter into our art but I am not interested in literal interpretations. I came upon this book I had on phrenology [“…the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.” From Oxford Languages] and I have this massive collection of found photographs, and then a friend gave me this card set, “Flinch”, that was really mysterious. So I combined those elements.
Center of the Forehead, 2020, 10″x8″, mixed media: acrylic paint, found 19th century portrait, found paper, “Flinch” card on found envelope, piece of found french receipt, paint on paper and oil paint on wood panel
So looking at “Center of the Forehead,” I see the various elements of the cards and photos and references to phrenology but I’m curious about the abstract black and white design at the bottom right. What is that?
It was just the pleasure of painting that. Just letting the brush do what it wants to do. It’s a bit like automatic writing; I’m not dictating it. It just happened. And yes, this design is repeated in some of the other pieces. Yes, it is unique to this series. Because it is a series, there has to be a sort of consistency and this pattern plays a part in that.
I found two somewhat separate paths in this group of work. This piece, “Center of the Forehead,” has a commonality with several other pieces in the series and is also more in sync with your other work that I am aware of. There is another group from this series that I find very different. Let’s talk about “Pretending That Everything Will Be Okay.”
Pretending That Everything Will Be Okay, 2020, 12″x10″x3.7″, mixed media: acrylic paint, pencil and pastel on paper and wood panel and found clock frame
I go back and forth doing abstract and figurative or portrait work. Working abstract is very relaxing for me. But then I am compelled to return to faces and things and so this one is made from the frame around an old clock and the piece it is resting on is very thick, almost four inches. It just worked to put the one piece on top of the other and then I figured a way of unifying them and it just kind of happened and the title came from the way I was feeling at that moment. Things are so disastrous but we have to carry on. Everything I was doing was so sombre, I decided to use bright colors for this one.
So what makes this piece, and a few others in this series, different from the rest is its painterliness. That portrait could stand alone in a frame.
But it isn’t a portrait of anyone, it’s from inside my head.
Yes, I understand, but the point I find so interesting is that it is such an accomplished painting in and of its own. The other point that makes this one of my favorite works of this series is how solid – almost architectural – the way you have combined the various elements of the design. The compositional balance is so strong. You said you like people to invent their own stories so when I look at this I see the clock frame but it is missing the clock. And that circular void is floating above her head almost as if she is thinking about it. And I think about the pandemic and look at your title and there is just so much going on here but I don’t come to any conclusive answer and that’s probably good.
So let’s go to this other piece that I also think of as more “painterly” in the series, “Gyromancy.” [We didn’t discuss the definition of the word but I found this wonderful one in Wikipedia, “Gyromancy is a method of divination in which a person spins around inside or walks the circumference of a circle drawn on the ground, the perimeter of which is marked with the letters of an alphabet. The divination is inferred from the letter at the position where the person either stumbles or falls across the circle’s edge. The person would repeat the practice “…till he evolved an intelligible sentence, or till death or madness intervened. The dizziness brought on by spinning or circling is intended to introduce randomness or to facilitate an altered state of consciousness.”]
Gyromancy, 2020, 20″x7″ (triptych), mixed media: acrylic paint and found papers on canvas
Again, I would say this piece was self-comforting. I love design and graphic elements so I just let myself play. The thing that is so interesting and fun for me with a diptych or triptych is that you not only have to solve the problem aesthetically in one piece but that has to relate to the aesthetic in the other piece or pieces as well. It is a kind of multi-dimensional problem-solving. Each piece has to stand on its own but also work with the other pieces. Yes, in making this piece it became clear that it needed to be vertical [as different from the normal horizontal format for a triptych].
Let’s talk about “What If?” It looks sculptural to me, like a free-standing piece.
What If?, 2020, 21″x18″, mixed media: acrylic paint, industrial filter, assorted found papers, pencil and colored pencil on paper, remnant of atlas and oil paint on wood panels
Well, no, it’s not. It actually hangs on the wall. It has six component pieces.
See that circular thing at the top? It is some sort of industrial filter I found and that was the starting point. And then I began with the piece on the lower left bottom and behind that face, it says “what if, what if, what if” and those two words are very representative of anxiety. We’re living in such an anxiety-filled era. I kept adding more pieces and I screwed each piece into each other so it could hang on the wall.
It’s interesting looking at the photograph of the piece because it is free-standing and it looks like a large sculpture. [Discussion about the tricks of photographing artwork.] Scale can be an illusion between the actual object and how it appears in photographs. Scale fascinates me. Sometimes a work that might not be all that good can still have a [slaps hands] because it is eight by ten feet. Conversely, things that are very small are sometimes lost. People don’t see them or they walk by them or they simply don’t register. But the fascinating thing about your work, which is all relatively small, is that it pulls me in. So even though your pieces are all small, they are also very big!
I know you were a Nurse Practitioner in your working career. In this series, Pseudoscience, which has something to do with the pandemic, how much of your experience as a Nurse Practitioner informed this work?
I don’t think it did. What was incredible about my career, and I did it for thirty-four years, was that I heard peoples’ stories. I had that privilege of hearing amazing stories, sometimes secret stories. I’m so grateful for that. Your head becomes filled with those stories and it’s not like I wrote or shared the content of any of them but it is just this punchbowl of feelings that came from listening.
That makes sense to me as your work is all about what’s going on in the mind, either yours or theirs or somebody’s, it’s informed by observation of human behavior and it’s the storytelling that comes of that. It’s all about storytelling for me.
In this pandemic there is a real irony that we are not only having to protect ourselves with social distancing and masks and so on, but we are having to protect ourselves from each other. There’s a sad irony to that. And that brings me to another aspect of your work. You mention in your statement “humor,” that “…humor feeds me and infuses my artwork” and “…if there is a way to convey even a little bit of humor, it confirms the therapeutic benefit of art.” I agree that art can be therapeutic. What I’m asking about in your work is this aspect of humor as it is applied to a subject that is rife with suffering, this pandemic. Because there are some of each in these works, how do you find your way between suffering and humor?
I think that we are really screwed without humor. I’m no stranger to death and suffering but if we cannot look for or appreciate, even if they are just very small, little moments of humor or an opportunity to laugh, it’s just hopeless. We have to be able to step back and see things from that perspective. [So you’re an optimist.] I struggle. But I don’t want to believe it is all for naught. I don’t want to succumb to that attitude. It’s really hard but it’s worth it. So I think that struggle has to be armed with some degree of humor. In dark times I think we need humor even more. Just to read the newspaper is so deeply unsettling. We need to find a counterbalance to that.
So, yes, I’m happy to see the humor in your work.
I always conclude these interviews with a dumb question and even though you’ve already answered it in your statement and in our conversation, the dumb question is, “Why do you do it?”
I don’t think I have a choice, to be honest. It’s because I have to. Once you accept the term “artist” as part of your identity, it’s too much of who you are to not do it. It’s not optional.
Interview with Marsha Balian
The Woven Tale Press
Posted on May 6, 2020 by Jennifer Nelson
Nelson: Please describe your journey in becoming a self-taught artist, including how you invent your own techniques.
Balian: I have made art since early childhood, but somehow never considered studying it on a serious or formal level. By nature, I am an auto-didact, in great part because I don’t like being told what to do and I am also very resistant to following directions. This means that I often pay the price of doing things in ways that aren’t always efficient or might lead to work that fails profoundly.
But trial and error are part of the process as well. I do learn from my mistakes and thankfully they are less catastrophic than in the past. When work does succeed to my satisfaction, there can be a sense of victory and great pleasure.
Nelson: In your mixed media works, you use different materials, including lace, a collar from a doll dress, book pages, and assorted paper. Where do you find these materials and can you talk about how you incorporate them into your work?
Marsha Balian, Minor Catastrophes, 2019. Mixed media, 12” x 18”
Balian: One of the really fun aspects of doing mixed media and collage is the opportunity it provides for play. There are no strict rules to follow and invention is encouraged by the marriage of uniting so many disparate materials.
Using found materials has led me to become a scavenger or as some have said, a hunter-gatherer. This can carry the risk of becoming a hoarder, not to mention that organizing piles of stuff (for me at least) can be really challenging. On the other hand, the world can be filled with treasures that someone else thinks are trash. Since I live in an urban setting, there is no end to the interesting stuff that can be found on the sidewalk, the curb, or even the street. I love the sense that I am giving some tossed object a new life.
Of course, used bookstores, rummage sales, thrift shops, occasionally an antique store and the cast-off objects of friends and neighbors along with leftover construction material from my husband are all great sources for me.
The process of working for me might begin with the object itself. In the individually titled six-piece work called “Minor Catastrophes,” my inspiration came from what I found during a walk in the Arizona desert. I came across such interesting things: a rusty nail, a used shotgun shell, the rusted lid of an old can. Somehow the nail made me think of the expression “I needed that like a hole in the head” (which is the title of the piece in the upper left-hand corner) and it took off from there.
In the piece “Conversation 1,” I played with some old wallpaper samples and pieces of lace I had accumulated. I drew the face on a page from an old book and repeated some of the shapes in paint that were suggested in the wallpaper sample. The lace reminded me of old waitress uniforms from my childhood. She’s looking off to the left and the companion piece “Conversation 2” has a woman looking off to the right as if they are talking to one another.
Marsha Balian, Conversation Left, 2019. Mixed media, 13 ½” x 13 ½”
Nelson: What techniques do you use in the series Bad Grammar and what are the challenges and joys of creating these bright, abstract paintings?
Balian: For me, doing abstract work can be very relaxing. It is an intriguing problem-solving venture somewhat like doing a puzzle. I might start with a particular shape and color and somehow that suggests another shape and color. In a sense it begins a conversation within itself; you solve one problem and it creates another waiting to be solved.
Marsha Balian, Split Infinitives, 2019. Mixed media, 16” x 16”
In “Split Infinitives” I wanted to play with curvilinear shapes. I started with the piece in the upper left corner and used some scraps of paper along with paint. But it needed company, so I started adding the other components that would work individually and as a whole.
In “Dangling Participles,” I also used pieces of paper which I cut into different shapes and then I painted larger swaths of color. Since I almost always work in series, each piece had to both stand alone and connect in some way to its neighbor. In a sense, it became a design (the overall appearance) within a design (each component).
Marsha Balian, Dangling Participles, 2019. Mixed media, 16” x 28”
Nelson: In the About Face, you delicately draw faces in pencil then juxtapose them with found objects and acrylic paints. Can you talk about this series?
Balian: I love drawing faces perhaps because I have the bad habit of staring at people. There is nothing more fascinating to me. This series was intended to be quick, easy, and small (sizes ranging from 7” x 7” down to 4” x 4”). I also wanted to play with materials I had easily at hand.
Marsha Balian, Dangled, 2018. Mixed media, 7” x 7”
For instance, in the piece “Dangled,” the figure came from a knitting magazine from the 1930s and the green text on the right was from a children’s magazine from the 1940s. I drew the face with pencil and colored pencil and then later added chevron shapes from a piece of fabric.
The piece “Champion” made use of a page from a children’s book that someone named “Benny” had signed. The boy on the left sports knitted mittens also from the magazine referenced above. I don’t remember where the text in the lower right came from, but know that I chose it because the piece needed some red. The face is also drawn with pencil and colored pencil. Because no human face is symmetrical, I added an ear cut from a magazine photo.
Marsha Balian, Champion, 2018. Mixed media, 7” x 7”
Nelson: From where do you gain inspiration for your artwork, and what compels you to produce? Has your previous job as a health care provider impacted your work?
Balian: For me, inspiration is fluid and sometimes elusive. Often it is the materials themselves that speak to me or suggest things to try. That said, I think that inspiration isn’t mandatory, but work is. Maintaining momentum is critical. This can mean if one is lucky, there is a level of engrossment that eliminates any sense of time, place, or other competing demands. That state of “flow” is in a way the drug that keeps many artists addicted to making work. When it happens (which isn’t all the time), it is exhilarating.
I was incredibly lucky to have had dual careers. I was able to work part-time as a nurse practitioner and the remainder of the time as an artist. Somehow, those two activities dovetailed beautifully. Because my work often has a narrative quality, it often came as a response to the many stories I heard from my patients. Because making art is very solitary, it was a lovely balance to be able to work so closely with people, and then entirely on my own in the studio.
Nelson: How do you see your artwork evolving in the future?
Balian: I don’t have a clear sense of how my work will evolve. I struggle to avoid getting stale, that is, reusing old ideas. There can be a tendency to create a brand as an artist which is okay, but somehow feels to me like cheating. I want my work to remain fresh. I look at art constantly and that stimulates ideas. I don’t keep a notebook, but perhaps one day I will. I do have a mental list of things I want to try, but having sufficient time is always a challenge. I think the goal in projecting towards the future, is to remain open to change, to letting things unfold without fear or judgement. I try to say to myself: “let’s see where this goes….”
Marsha Balian Brings a Hunger-Gatherer Approach to Art
The Oakland artist creates playful compositions of painted and drawn images, collage, and found objects on wood panels with curious characters emerging.
Oakland Magazine and Alameda Magazine, October 2018
Published October 11, 2018 by Mary Corbin
Unusual found objects creep into artist Marsha Balian’s works. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.
Oakland artist Marsha Balian creates playful compositions of painted and drawn images, collage, and found objects on wood panels. Curious characters emerge from a fictional place and time in a theatrical backdrop of pattern,
color, and texture, posing in portrait or looking at viewers square in the eye as if they’ve been waiting for their arrival. One can’t help but wonder what the story is or invent one for one’s self.
“I never want to literally tell a story in my art, and since stories in life don’t always have a happy ending, I play with humor as much as possible,” said Balian who recently retired from a 36-year career in health care, primarily as a nurse practitioner for Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center. She attributed her daily immersion in people’s myriad tales as a contributing factor to her narrative style, explaining, “Nothing fascinates me more than hearing other people’s stories.”
Originally from San Diego, Balian is a self-taught artist, and a studio in her Rockridge home overflows with the stuff she finds from her frequent foraging around town. Balian thinks of herself as a hunter-gatherer in search of interesting materials, discovering the debris of lives left behind on street corners and flea markets.
“I sometimes feel buried under all the material, so I am forced to live with a certain degree of chaos in my studio. But somehow, it all works,” Balian said.
Found objects including children’s blocks and dolls, antique household fixtures like doorknobs, faucet washers and potato mashers, found paper scraps, old book pages, and stamps are just some of things that inhabit Balian’s artwork. These objects, assembled into surreal narratives, render viewers as voyeurs peeking at the remnants of someone’s personal secrets. Balian sometimes works on several pieces at once in a series, with one leading to another and containing a common thread. A series might be born from a new collection of materials or from looking at art in a book, gallery, or museum, Balian said. “I am always knocked out by the work at Creative Growth Gallery in Oakland,” said Balian.
In her signature wood panel work, Balian begins with a theme and lets serendipity take her along for the ride. Her series, Long Winded Tales from Distant Lands, began from thinking about swimmers and her own fears and discomfort in water. As the series developed she realized, when she would dream about being in water, those fears didn’t exist. “I could swim across borders, glide through continents, past mountains, treasures, crumbling buildings, and strange animals,” she said. The series emerged from there while word fragments on a page from an antique book gave her further inspiration and the series title.
Other works from Balian are built from boxes — wine crates, cigar boxes, matchboxes, and a wooden drawer among them — rather than flat panels as the base. These pieces are inspired in part by the work of mid-20th century assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, whom she counts as an artistic influence. In somewhat of a departure, she made a set of nonfigurative papier-mâché sculptures, created during her husband’s illness and his death 13 years ago. “I felt the need to do more with my hands then and sometimes still feel a craving for doing sculpture. But the work isn’t always successful, so I return to what I do best,” she said.
Taking in the work of Balian is a treat, at once entertaining and mysterious. Small yet captivating — most panel works are at most 12 inches square — viewers are invited into intimate space. Her narratives nudge viewers toward reflection on their own histories, the heaps of detritus and ephemera of a human life, the things one cherish or leave behind. At the same time, it’s like a visit to the circus in the heyday of Barnum & Bailey with its cast of odd characters, dreamy sets, and fantastical performances.
Balian has exhibited her work nationwide since 2004. She is represented by GearBox Gallery in Oakland, where her next exhibit with Deborah Benioff Friedman, About Face, will be held in the Inner Room of the gallery Nov. 22-Jan. 5. For more information, visit her website at MarshaBalian.com.