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Interview with Mara Balode 

Mara Balode is a jewellery artist and maker. Her work has been exhibited both locally and internationally, in countries such as the United States of America, Japan, Italy and the Netherlands. She completed her MA at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and her BA at the Glasgow School of Art. While studying for her BA, Mara Balode spent time at the Hiko Mizuno College of Jewellery in Tokyo on an exchange programme. There she started exploring transparent materials and another of her interests: light and illusion.

In March 2022 Tom Iriks and Mara Balode met up for a chat in the atelier at DIVA.

How would you describe yourself?

I have always thought of myself as a maker. Even as a young child, I created objects using my hands. I remember when I was eight or nine years old, my mom took me to a ceramics class. Every day for a period of two or three months, I produced two or three ceramic objects. Of course, they were not finished or refined. I was a child. But I remember how much I enjoyed creating them.

Where was this?

It was in Riga, Latvia where I was born and grew up. Realising that I wanted to study art after graduating from high school, I enrolled at the Riga Design and Art School. My grandmother had studied there and was teaching there at the time. My mother had studied there too. It’s a sort of family tradition, I guess!

The Riga Design and Art School turned out to be a really interesting experience. I studied there for four years and was introduced to a whole range of art forms, from painting, drawing and sculpting to graphic and product design. It was there that I was introduced to metal design and silversmithing. I still apply that knowledge and those skills, particularly when I feel the need to do something different. I now know I can explore mediums other than my normal ones, and this can be liberating. I had some really good teachers in Riga. However, after graduating, I decided that I wanted to study abroad.

Why go abroad?

It is hard to explain. I knew I wanted to study jewellery. I also felt the need for something new. After four years studying at an art school in Latvia, I was ready to do something different. I was ready for a change of scene. I applied to various schools in the UK and ended up at the Glasgow School of Art. Living away from home for almost a decade has definitely changed who I am, both as a person and as an artist. 

What did you study at the Glasgow School of Art?

Silversmithing and Jewellery. The Glasgow School of Art is very conceptual in its thinking. The craft was secondary. However, they always helped you get from an idea to a finished piece. And as a result I came to understand my own creative process. The technical support was there, but only if it was necessary for you to bring your idea to fruition. Most of us learned by doing and in the 3rd year we had “technical Tuesday”, when we were taught a new technique. That is to say, we watched someone else do it; we didn’t necessarily have to do it ourselves. For me, the freedom of thinking and working in that way spurred me on to develop and explore new ideas and materials. The Glasgow School of Art really taught me how to ‘play’. Teachers always told us to play, enjoy and experiment! That is something I still do.

After your Bachelor’s degree, you went to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp to do your Master’s. Why Antwerp?  

After gaining my Bachelor's degree, I spent three months as an intern at Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. While I was there, I helped mount an exhibition of work from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts Graduate Show. The work was of a very high standard and that year’s graduates were a particularly good group of students. At that point, I began to think that the Academy in Antwerp might be an interesting option for me. And Antwerp is a vibrant and super cool city as well. So, what more could you want!

You did a two-year Master’s course in Jewellery Design & Gold- and Silversmithing at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. How were those two years? There was COVID of course.

It was not easy, there was a change of staff in the jewellery design department and we lost six weeks of our course to the COVID lockdown. However, there was a great sense of camaraderie among the students and the teaching staff. We all did our best in the circumstances. The Academy provided a creative space to work and our teachers were a great support. During that time I came up with a technique which I am still using and developing today and see myself applying in the future.

How did you develop as an artist during those two years?

I started the course wanting a complete change of direction. At first I found it a huge struggle creatively. I couldn’t find a theme that appealed to me, a new approach or interesting materials and by the end of the first year I felt no sense of achievement. What happened next was really interesting. While reviewing my previous work, I came across a photograph I had taken in Scotland. And through a process of serendipity, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I had this photograph, I had some silk lying around at home, then I saw the light reflecting on a piece of metal and 40 minutes later I had created a prototype for what would later become a series of brooches. Taking one step back, looking at what I’d done and returning to some of my original ideas, got me started again. I realised how important light, reflection, memory and time are for me. In Scotland I had worked on those themes and it was even the subject of my thesis. In Antwerp I was able to revisit the same idea and take it to a new place, conceptually as well as physically.  

How do you account for your fascination with transparent materials, light and memory? They seem very important to you. 

I have been thinking about this. In Latvia, I found the winters really tough, especially when I was a teenager. It was dark and it rained and snowed a lot. We had really long spells without light. Thinking about the summer was one of the things that helped me through those periods. Surviving until the end of December was the hardest part. Then the days started to lengthen and you could see that spring and summer were not far off. I’ve been thinking about light all my life. I started exploring the possibilities of light seriously when I was on an exchange programme at the Hiko Mizuno College of Jewellery in Tokyo.

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Brooches: Escape series by Mara Balode, 2021

At a certain point you applied for a residency at DIVA. What was your main motivation for applying?

I remember visiting DIVA’s library and atelier while I was studying for my Master’s at the Academy. It was always in the back of my mind. After graduating, I wanted to continue with my work and develop it by researching precious gemstone jewellery created between the 19th and mid-20th century and also the role that light plays in it. DIVA seemed to be the obvious place for that research. Then I saw the open call for the residency and it felt like ‘a sign’.

What are you planning to do during your residency?

I will focus on two aspects. Firstly, I want to learn more about gemstones and the history of jewellery. How the perception of fine jewellery and gemstone jewels developed over centuries, and particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Secondly, I want to explore and experiment with anodizing and colouring metal. I am very, very excited about that. I want to find a way of making objects that reflect light in different ways so I can create different light illusions. I find the physics and chemistry of gemstones interesting, but what I am doing is completely different. In my pieces the light is reflected in different ways and it shines through a layer of coloured and hardened silk. I want to see if I can find a way to achieve a glow that resembles - or imitates - that of a gemstone.

Do you have particular routines or rituals when working?

Walking. Most of my inspiration comes from walking and details I see as I walk. I really like to experiment with each idea I have, however small. I am always curious to see what happens if I do this or that. For example, I started using aluminium and silk on a balloon, just to see if it bends. From those little experiments with a balloon, I created a whole project. This is important to me and every single project I have completed started in this playful, experimental way. Once an idea has passed this initial phase, I usually produce lots of samples and the project becomes more layered and complex.    

One of your routines is walking. Do you go on long hikes?

In Scotland I did. Here in Belgium it is more difficult.

Is it more strolling around the city?

Exactly, it doesn’t matter so much where I go. My work is also about memories, snapshots in time. During my walks I take a lot of photographs. I collect life’s moments. Walking, looking around, seeing, taking pictures, and then just collecting them. Sometimes a couple of years later I go back to those moments on a particular day and make a work based on them. My emotions and my memories of the light in a specific situation are important to me in terms of finding shapes for my designs.   

And photography helps preserve your memories?

Yes it does. For my Master’s thesis I created several small objects based on a couple of important days and special moments in Scotland. These are days I remember vividly and I took lots of pictures. For example, the ‘Loch & Rock’ series of brooches is based on photographs I took on a trip to Loch Lomond. While I was taking the photos, I was thinking: I will definitely use these. And two years later, I did! So, yes, taking pictures is very important to me.

In the ‘Loch & Rock’ edition, the photos actually ended up in the jewellery pieces. Is that always the case?

No, not necessarily. The day itself is the inspiration. The pictures don’t necessarily end up in the piece. But in this case, yes, they did.

What was so special about your day at Loch Lomond?

I felt really good. It was just a visit I carefully documented, but there wasn’t actually anything special about it. It was just the feeling of the moment.

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Brooches: Loch & Rocks by Mara Balode, 2021

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Brooche: Landscape Monochrome by Mara Balode, 2020

When you look at the photos afterwards, do you feel the same sensation?

When I think about that day, I feel the same sensation. I don’t necessarily need to look at the photos. In this case I created an edition based on the photos I took during my trip to Loch Lomond, but that doesn’t mean it works like that every time. 

A couple of years ago I did a project about a girl I met while travelling. We met on a plane from Edinburgh to Istanbul and spent a few hours together in an airport waiting for our connecting flights. I was going to Japan and she was going to China. We were both starting out on a new chapter in our lives, so we had a strong connection. Two years later, I received a postcard from her telling me how important that meeting was. This inspired me to make an installation with 50 small paper planes symbolising the transition in life and the importance of that brief period we spent together. In general, my inspiration is life: living, seeing, feeling and collecting moments in snapshots.  

Was the installation intended as a jewellery project or an art project?

Well, it is a pending project. Maybe one day I will finish it. I made these mini paper planes and coated them with nail polish. The idea is to cast those planes, put a pin on them, and send them back to her. It’s an ongoing project. I like to give my ideas time.

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Installation view "Paper Planes" by Mara Balode, 2020

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Detail installation view "Paper Planes" by Mara Balode, 2020

What are your dreams as a designer, as a jewellery maker?

I would like to find a way to integrate theoretical research into my artistic practice. I want to challenge myself. I don’t want to write essays people need to read in order to understand my work. That is not my goal. The theoretical research is more to satisfy my need for continuous personal growth and wanting to understand things. Hopefully, this research will gradually become an integral part of my work.

You said you do a lot of photography. Do you also write?

No, that is exactly what I want to do more of. I am a very visual person. How to put my thoughts and ideas into words is the next step.

Why do you want to put your ideas into your words?

Because writing allows you to see things from a different perspective.

What is your favourite part of being a jewellery designer?

I like serendipity. The moment when the pieces of a puzzle fall into place. That’s the most amazing moment imaginable!