Home Spain stamps In wooden panels, Marsha Balian weaves intimate stories of found objects

In wooden panels, Marsha Balian weaves intimate stories of found objects


Artist Marsha Balian creates playful compositions with found objects, collages and paint on wooden panels. Curious figures emerge from a theatrical backdrop of patterns, colors and textures, posing as if awaiting our arrival with our single question, “What’s your story?”

“I never want to be too literal because life stories 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 healthcare, primarily as a nurse practitioner for Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center, she credits her former daily immersion in a myriad of stories 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 sees herself as a hunter-gatherer in search of interesting materials, discovering the remains of lives in motion, at flea markets and on street corners. Filling his studio – an ADU (accessory dwelling) in his garden with large windows and beautiful views of greenery – Balian works his magic with his treasure trove of found materials.

Objects including children’s blocks and dolls, antique household appliances such as doorknobs, tap washers and potato mashers, found scraps of paper, pages from old books and stamps are not just a few of the things that inhabit Balian’s work. Assembled into surreal narratives, we became voyeurs peeking into the remains of someone’s secrets.

Balian works on several pieces at the same time in a series, one piece leading to another, containing a common thread. In her signature wood panel work, Balian starts with a theme and lets serendipity take her for the ride. Some of the works constructed from all manner of boxes—wine cases, cigar boxes, matchboxes—are inspired in part by the work of mid-20th-century assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, whom she considers as a creative influence.

Marsha Balian, “Lucy and Babs”

Having recently received three small wooden drawers from a child’s chest, Balian studied them for weeks before deciding to use each as a frame with a smaller wooden panel inside. Painting each surface to converse with the images on the added interior panel created an intricate and interesting challenge for the artist.

“Since I never plan anything in advance, all of that could change as I go along. The work usually tells me what it needs,” she said.

During the chaos of the pandemic, Balian said creating art offers refuge, liberation and relief.

“I’ve been very productive, partly because so many distractions are no longer available and partly because creating art can soothe anxiety,” she said.

Initially needing expressive focus to deal with the complexity of the times, Balian created a series spoofing everything she calls “pseudo-science”, playing with imagery that relates to how people people made sense of a confusing world in the past: tarot cards, phrenology and sleight of hand. Subsequently, she worked on a series of self-portraits with the intention do not to replicate its appearance, 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. As she sifted through the stacks of sepia photos of her parents, she always wondered, “Who was that person? How was their life? Similarly, in another recent series, “Lost and Found”, using hundreds of old studio photographs in his own collection, Balian created new lives for the unnamed characters. Leaving a bit of mystery, it simply offers a narrative that the viewer can pick up and develop further on their own.

The pandemic has also led Balian to reflect on the role of art and the experience of artistic creation. In this perspective, his new series of works on wooden panels in the shape of a totem, “Scenic Route”, exhibited at the Transmission Gallery in West Oakland, invites us on a visual journey.

“Art will not necessarily compensate for the losses we ourselves have suffered or the need to bear witness to the suffering of others, but it can function as a kind of escape, a visual passage to another place, to something better, something engaging and maybe quaint,” she said.

Balian devotes considerable energy to his work, sometimes doing nothing else. When a streak is over, she stops and directs her energy to other things like writing, which she also loves. Before long, however, she is called back to the studio. And after avoiding him for years, Balian is a new convert to instagram, embracing the connection opportunity. The immediate feedback has been a boon for Balian and a great antidote to the isolation artists sometimes face.

“The conversation in an artistic dialogue was amazing,” she said.

Admiring Balian’s work is a treat, both entertaining and mysterious because we are invited into an intimate space. His stories challenge us to reflect on our own stories, the heaps of trash and ephemera of a human life, the things we 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 settings and fantastic performances.

Exhibiting her work nationally since 2004, she is a member of transmission gallery in Oakland and recently exhibited work at Vita Collage in point. Reyes station. Upcoming shows include an exhibition in Formentera, Spain, a show in The living room in the Mission, and a performance with a jury at Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica. For more information, visit his website at marshabalian.fr and instagram.