Muriel Balensi is a master of Murano traditional glass beading. Born in France, Muriel works and lives in Murano where she sat down with Nadja to discuss manifesting her dream and creating a better world, one bead at a time.
N: What brought you to Murano?
M: Twelve years ago I changed my life. I left France to come to Venice and became a professional in glass beading.
N: Did you feel it was like a calling?
M: Absolutely! I used to study aesthetics, metaphysics and philosophy. I love art, it's my passion. At one point I felt I was hearing the sound of glass in my head and in my soul, like a sweet symphony, a mermaid's song. So I chose to make my passion my job. I left France and came to Venice to learn flame work to create glass beading.
N: The technique of flamed glass beading is unique to France and Italy. You could have stayed in France? Why go to Murano?
M: It was obvious to me. Murano is glass.
N: So you arrived in Murano and looked for a master to teach you?
M: That is not quite it, I came here with two pieces of luggage, not knowing anyone. I couldn't speak Italian and I had hardly enough money to buy the material: the torch, the glass and the pins to make my beads. As I could only afford a few sessions in a workshop to learn the technique, I practiced on my own. Then I opened a shop and sold my first beads to try to survive.
N: Murano has a seven hundred year tradition of glass making. The same families have lived on the island for generations. What was the reaction of the locals when they saw a French woman arriving and starting to make beads.
M: It was difficult at the beginning, precisely because I am a woman and I am French. Many people come here only to make money from tourism. With time though Muranese understood I came here to live, to work, to make my art and to manifest my dream. I made great friends and I developed partnerships. I became part of Murano's glass family.
N: There's a long tradition of making beads in Murano. It is said that the island of Manhattan was bought with Venetian beads, they would have often served as currency at the time. The technique you use is called Sommerso, it is made with a flame, not blown glass and consists of submerging coloured beads to create a multi layer effect. The Art of Venetian Glass Beads is now classified as an Immaterial Heritage by UNESCO. What does it mean?
M: The UNESCO classification, it's the know how to, the knowledge and the people that practice this art. I am one of the people who practice The Art of Venetian Glass Beads but this recognition affects the community, all those who practice this profession and fight to transmit it forever.
N: You are a UNESCO heritage monument, are't you?
M: No, I just took part in the committee, seven years ago we started working on the recognition of this art. It's an immaterial UNESCO classification, living heritage. At the beginning of this year, when they finally announced the classification, it was such a happy moment.
N: The way you have developed the technique is particular. It shows an evolution from the tradition. You made it your own.
M: Masters in Murano say I invented a new style and a new concept for the beads. For me one bead is one entity. It's a landscape, a dream. I like to think that each bead is a part of my soul and embodies a part of the beauty of the universe. My technique uses up to seven layers of transparent glass to create depth. It's a game of light and colours. I love glass. I love working every day and I try to insert all the love of the universe, all the best of myself at the moment into each bead. I think that whatever you put in something it is what this thing becomes.
N: People usually don't realize that glass is a living matter, suspended between a liquid and solid state. You put an intention, an energy in your work. When I wear your jewelry it reminds me of the present moment and I feel a sense of protection. They are talismans to me. What you describe when creating the beads sounds like a mindfulness practice, doesn't it?
M: Absolutely. I think that's why a lot of my beads and my creations create some dependence. It’s like when you see beautiful pictures, beautiful landscapes, you would like to see another one and a blue one, the red and the yellow one. I believe in the microcosm, my beads are like micro worlds. Everyone can change the universe and change the macrocosm, thanks to changing the microcosm, it’s our collective mission. One step at a time, one bead at a time.
N: It's the ripple effect of each action that creates a shift and it starts in our mind. It's a difficult moment for Murano. How do you see the future of the island?
M: I like to think that it's not possible to kill an art. That Murano is not the past but it is the present and the future. I think the island needs some innovation, needs a new wave with new ideas, new concepts. Of course you want to keep the tradition, the secular excellence of a practice alive but evolution is crucial.
N: Have you seen new interesting initiatives and new people coming that could bring some change?
M: Yes, we have to open the island to a new generation, new energies and foreigners.
N: How do you do that?
M: I give classes. I did exhibitions with my beads and I try to invent every day. I think that when you see something beautiful, when you hear something new, it brings new ideas. I have seen people coming here wanting to learn. But it's a very demanding task. It requires an absolute devotion. Glass is like a Latin lover, you have to be one hundred percent. Only glass for all your life!