Up Close … with local artist Marie Mai Balette Marie-‘To me, art is an extension of the self’


13-September-2011

Childhood and early education

The place she grew up in is one rather known for its history as Marie Mai herself pointed Marie Mai Balette Marieout.

“My childhood was a very interesting one,” she said, leaning forward, her hands folded under her chin.

“I lived in a little house right next to the Grann Kaz at La Plaine St André (next to where the Trois Frères Distillery stands today)”.

“Unfortunately the house is no longer there but I remember the little copra business nearby and a man – I can’t quite remember his name – who built boats. Nearby was a place where tortoises were kept as well.

“We used to walk through a whole bunch of coconut trees before coming across anything,” she said laughing.
Her father, a farmer, used to plant and collect coconuts for a living.

“I used to ‘help’ out by nicking the ones whose husks had already been removed. On the way back from dropping off the coconuts, my father would often put me in the wheelbarrow and push me all the way home. Those were good times,” she said smiling.

Marie Mai told me her mother made a living as a cleaning lady to one of their neighbours, Mr Abel, and she remembers their family life as being rather colonial.

“My grandfather grew tobacco and my grandmother used to plait the dry tobacco leaves (karot taba) and string them up in the house. The whole place used to reek of the stuff,” she said laughing.

“Watching the way my mother and grandmother lived was a great inspiration for me. They are both very simple people who accepted life as it came and they struggled. Always struggled to make ends meet was a constant,” she said sighing.

“If I’m like this today – simple and trying not to complain much about things thrown my way – it’s all thanks to the family matriarchs.”

“You know, you always think what your elders advise you are rubbish at a certain age. However, it was only after I had my own children that I realised just how right they actually were and I greatly respected my mother for that. She was strict but fair.”

I remember walking to school every day; at the time I was at Anse Aux Pins primary.
After primary school, I went to NYS (the former national Youth Service) for two years where I actually began to mature a little and became more independent.

It was there that Mrs Noella Shamlaye, one of the heads at the institution, asked me what it is I wanted to do after. Since I was already writing poetry and sketching, I opted for Art and Design and did graphics – although, at the time, I still had no idea what graphics was,” she said.

“It was relatively new, you see and I remember Alma Dodin – who came back from studying with an afro and corduroy pants – as the only person who had studied it thoroughly at the time,” she explained laughing.
“In fact I was one of the only girls to get involved with graphics back then.”


The world through a child’s eyes

After three years at Art and Design, Marie Mai went to work briefly at the School for the Exceptional Child.
“It was a life changing experience and it was then that I realised that no two persons are the same.”
Marie Mai says she has one vivid memory of her time there.

“I was teaching an art class and there was this little boy who had drawn a tree. However, he had painted it purple!
For me, this was a rather odd colour to paint a tree with and I told him so, but he was adamant and even got offended.
“You see, for him, the tree was in fact purple,” she said.

“I have since learned that colours, as well as art, are expressions and extensions of a person instead of something separate to look at.

The colours of China

After her experience at the school, Marie Mai went to further her studies in China.
“It was a completely different world!” she said, looking pained.

“The language was difficult to learn and after a while I felt really home sick. This became One of Marie Mai’s creationseven worse during the winter. Everything was white, brown or grey and I remember wearing extremely bright colours without being fully aware of what I was doing at first. I just had to immerse myself in colour or I would simply become as grey as the weather itself.”

“I just could not get over how dead the trees looked,” she said laughing.
Despite all her difficulties though, Marie Mai managed to make it back home on Seychelles soil in one piece with her Bachelor of Arts in hand.

Working experience and creatively expanding 

Her first job after her degree was at the NAVC (National Audio Visual Centre) at the Ministry of Education.
“I found that I was the only girl working in the graphics department,” she said laughing.

Soon after, she moved to Art and Design to teach and has been working there for a little over twenty years.

During her time teaching, Marie Mai has also found time to continue painting and has taken part in numerous art exhibitions including an expo in Burkina Faso and one in England.

“I’m thinking of setting up one of my own exhibitions soon,” she said. “I’m not sure of the theme yet because I need to be a little careful. I have two collections and several ideas but I’m going to have to go through them as they’re not all on the same level nor are they composed of the same ideas.”

She has decided though that her first local exhibition should be full of colour.

Moods, art and a desire to go green
 
“I love colour, but it often depends on my moods,” she said laughing. “At one point I focused mostly on using silvers and transparents.”

“I believe that nature has a lot to teach us in terms of colours, shades and texture. It’s fascinating,” she said. I thought so too.

Marie Mai said she would also like to become vegan – a person who eats no meat or animal products – but said that it’s a hard lifestyle to maintain in Seychelles.

With regard to her art, Marie Mai said:
“Art to me is not about beautiful paintings or simply to convey a message to the public. To me, art is an extension of the self and something personal. It has no effect if the artist himself isn’t breathing and living art, so for me, art is life itself. It is a transition – a voyage if you will. When my mood changes, my art changes with it. However, I do not let my art control me. I don’t believe it works that way,” she said.

Inspiration, family and keeping it all together

“My father’s methods for planting sort of inspired me artistically. It was always in neat little rows, nothing out of line, always spaced equally. I tried it several times but failed miserably because it was as if he had used a ruler on the whole plantation,” she said laughing.

“People often ask me what kind of art I do and honestly, I have no set answer.
“I do a little bit of everything; contemporary and abstract art as well as poetic art (because I also write poems).
“Most of my inspiration comes from the poems I write, nature or from everyday life in general. There definitely exists variety to it,” she said.

“I was recently speaking to one of my ex teachers and he said, ‘Marie Mai, you have not changed a bit! You’re everywhere.’

“But I guess that’s just me, I don’t think I will ever be able to change. The funny thing is that same teacher, after speaking to me for a while, said, ‘you know why I like you Marie Mai? You remind me of myself’,” she said laughing.

“That definitely gives me hope that even though I haven’t decided on one form of art to follow, it’s still ok. You know, when a person has quite a high level of creativity, most of the time they want to do everything and anything to satisfy that hunger, which is why most of us tend to do just that; diversify.

“For example, I paint, write poems and occasionally work with tanmi to make flowers.
“Sometimes, though, because of time constraints or lack of material, it isn’t always easy to get everything done.
“For example, when I had my twins, I stopped painting due to some complications.”

This didn’t stop Marie Mai’s creativity, however.
“I began writing more and focusing more on sketches as they came to me rather than painting,” she said.
“There are some ‘drought’ times, where no ideas come to me but I usually make the most of this time and focus on working with dried flowers instead.”

“I also enjoy helping with stage decorations, especially if it involves children. Since I am a very spiritual person, I tend to drift towards helping out at Gospel shows; either with stage décor or helping to come up with ideas for the children’s costumes.

“My husband is also an artist, but he focuses mostly on big projects often involving 3D art. So you can imagine what it must be like living together,” she said laughing.

“We both want to do art, but somebody’s got to stay on earth and take care of the kids, so we compromise.”
Marie Mai lives with her twin daughters and her husband, Steve Marie (also an artist) at Pointe au Sel.

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