I met Maria in a curious sequence of events. Half a year ago, in the midst of pre-event frenzy (n.a the writer organizes Autor, a contemporary jewelry fair, in Bucharest), I received an e-mail. A woman, claiming to be a manager, gave me a detailed description of the 78 year old artist she’s representing. The letter was accompanied by beautiful pictures of handmade jewelry. They made me feel quite a bit suspicious. How could someone as talented as that be a complete unknown? I’d never seen such elaborate beading in Romania. I called scam.
Still, something pushed me to investigate. Finally, curiosity drove me to Maria’s apartment, up on Ștefan cel Mare bvd. What follows is a 75 year retrospect, an artist’s life I was lucky to have met.
Maria captivates the eye. She is an apparition, subtle and luminous. There’s a decisiveness about her that’s aparent. She’s waiting for me to take my shoes off and I feel her story gently boiling within her.
Who is Maria?
Seventy five years ago, a three year old kid watches as her great grandmother needle-points away, turning simple glass beads into wonderful pieces of lace. This is rural Moldova. The young girl is hopelesly lured to the little decorations her nana’s hands manage to produce.
You want to learn? Take a look, you’ll get the hang of it!
Soon, the girls hands get acquainted with thread. Out pops Maria’s first embroidery – a handkerchief. She remembers it well. Years later, an arts teacher in high school will ask to keep it. Let me remember you by it, child, you who worked in the name of Beauty, she said.
Maria continued her embroidery. She bought cheap beads from the village shop. Her hands were her only instruments. She had no needle. Soon, it was time for school, where Maria got her first nickname and, of course, it wasn’t very flatering.. Kids called her Dawdling Mary, because she worked at her own pace. Out of books came relief and, one day, the whole class found the famous latin dictum – Festina Lente! – screaming at them from the grey slate stone of the blackboard.
Maria’s in no hurry. There’s no place for rush in what she does. She might start a canvas today and, upon getting back to work the next day, she just might discover she has to redo everything. It’s because thread is a living being, her life and Maria’s intertwine as they both steal a bit from the other in order to carry on. Maria’s paintings calm the eye, they bring forth a universal truth difficult to touch otherwise. There is a certain color balance, a hypnotic, vibrant movement of flowers. Maria’s churches bring about a whole season of sensations and natural feelings.
The living room walls are wrapped in landscapes, botanical studies and icons. Each icon has a story of her own. A bound Jesus with a silk face watches as we go about the room, his thorn crown resting on his forehead, his wrists tied up.
There’s a lot of emotion in these. You can’t do a thing without feeling, Maria tells me and as she does, a reasonable definition of art arises from what she just said.
Her stories take me somewhere long gone. A world where art students learn painting from Corneliu Bana and Alexandru Ciucureanu (n.a: well-known Romanian artists). A world where fences are climbed because the gate is too far away even when you’re a teacher in the Faculty of Arts and a woman too. A strange world where you have to make a portrait of Elena Ceaușescu (communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s wife) and that means making her much more beautiful than she actually is. These are years and years of memories and i’m here to witness their second coming.
Maria opens a black jewelry box and starts emptying it on my lap. Flowers so vivid you sense the possibility of an endless iris, lily and passion flower field unfolding before you. Scarves, neckties, necklaces, everything means days and days of handmade work. Maria’s black and white shawls, sewn when she was a teenager out of silk she used to weave herself, remind me of the 2011 Givenchy couture show. But right now we’re closer to home.
Fifteen years ago, in 1998, Maria started working with an art gallery in Florence. It went on for 10 years. The techniques she developed as a child were new here and her jewelry was now in high demand. Orders piled up and, soon, a workshop was in order. Thirty girls worked side by side with Maria, who would manage the prototypes and send them out to the production line. This was a good time for her. It was the moment she officialy switched from canvas to fashion.
Today, Maria takes her place at her wooden desk in her bedroom turned workshop. Bright yellow beads start falling from a big bottle, like water. Like loyal pets they go in search for Maria’s needle, bewitched by her silent calling. I look at her and realize nothing’s changed. In her little room, the little girl who first came upon glass beads comes to life. Her hand is steady. She works fast and in complete silence.