Calligraphy Artist Maryam Al Balooshi shares the story of how her passion turned into a career.
As a Calligraphy Artist, Author, Chemical Engineer, Climate Change Expert and Aviation and Environment Advisor Maryam Al Balooshi has many roles to juggle. After graduating from University with a degree in Chemical Engineering she was one of the first women to undertake such a role in the Emirates. Along with her University peers, she defied the odds to have a successful career in an industry that had previously only been associated with men. While her career was thriving Al Balooshi always felt something was missing. As a young girl, she had been fascinated by Arabic calligraphy and this was a passion that would soon become a career. In 2018 Al Balooshi began to take her talent for calligraphy seriously and practised the art in her spare time. As she started to become well respected for her artworks in the UAE, Al Balooshi began to be approached by global brands who were keen to share her designs on an international scale. While she was hesitant at first, Al Balooshi soon embraced the opportunity and began to develop a thriving career in calligraphy. Today she juggles her corporate and writing career with her passion for art and the two are starting to come together in a unique way. Here we discover more about her journey so far and her ambitions for the future.
Tell us about your journey so far and how your passion for calligraphy came to be a career?
This hobby is something that started when I was around three or four years old. As a child, I was fascinated by calligraphy books. One of my cousins gave me a book to practice with and although I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, I liked the letters and shapes, and I became attached to this unknown concept. When I started school, I began to write in Arabic and when I was in Grade 10, I started to study calligraphy during my summer holidays. For a while, I was in and out of practice when I had the time. I went to college to study Chemical Engineering and I tried to continue with the calligraphy when I could, but in 2003 I stopped as I felt like my life was full at that time and I wanted to focus on my career and my studies.
For six years I didn’t touch calligraphy at all, but after a while, I started to feel like something was missing. My teacher never lost faith in me, and he was always trying to remind me of how good I was. One day, after I completed my master’s degree, I called him on the way back to Dubai and I told him I was ready to come back! And so, in 2009, I went back to it. My tutor told me that I had to start from the beginning again and that’s what I did. This was also the first time I did calligraphy using a bamboo pen, which is much more difficult. It took me around a year of practice to master this technique. In 2010, I remember my tutor asked me; ‘do you want to be a calligrapher or a designer?’ There is a difference. I told him I wanted to be a designer and one day have my own line, sharing my own thoughts. So I began to train my mind visually. I have been on many journeys, met many people and studied many art pieces along the way.
As an author who publishes books, a chemical engineer and at the same time, a calligrapher, a lot was happening in my life. I had one side that was strong and structured and another that was very soft and artistic. In 2018 I decided I wanted to find a way to synchronise all these elements of my personality and decided that all my art pieces should tell a story and come with a message. I decided it wasn’t about how many pieces I was producing but the stories I created through my art pieces. And this is what I have been doing ever since. It consumes a lot of energy and it’s not an easy process because when I set the story or idea I want to have in the piece, I still must redesign it many times to tell this story.
Tell us more about how you tell stories through your works?
In 2018, I presented my second piece with a story to His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. The concept of this artwork was about living together in peace – and this was just before we had the Year of Tolerance in the UAE. It was a huge piece looking at how different cultures and nationalities live together. When I presented this story to His Highness, he told me how he followed my column in the newspaper and he knows me as an author, so he understood the combination of writing, storytelling, calligraphy, and art. So, from this moment, I knew I wanted to start creating pieces and sharing the stories behind these art pieces. It brought all my facets together.
What can you tell us about your partnership with Van Cleef & Arpels?
At the end of 2018, Van Cleef & Arpels approached me as they wanted to create a dialogue to highlight the alignment between calligraphy and jewellery design. I was hesitant because I had never been presented to the public as a calligrapher before and this was very daunting. I worked closely with some of the team at Van Cleef & Arpels and they had faith that we could do something together. There were a lot of discussions about how we wanted to present this dialogue and they were also keen to learn about the history of calligraphy in this region. So we came up with an idea that aligned my work with the jewellery designs and we created a story for each piece. They started to engage with me on their designs and how they were created and the story behind each piece. They wanted to see my studio and my sketches, and they noticed that there was a lot of emotion in them.
During the process, they told me they would like to continue this collaboration and they were convinced. I was very happy that I was the person who convinced them that calligraphy was a world that they had to enter, and most importantly, that they were interested in me as a storyteller, as well as an artist. So, it became an ongoing collaboration. We work together each year to talk about what we can do together for the Holy Month for example. This project changed me as an artist and the way they listened to my story was very rewarding. I am part of the family now and each year they follow the concept that we set and work with a different artist. It has been a good journey and I have a great relationship with the brand.
How long does it take you to create your works?
As it’s not my full-time job, it depends on how much time I have. For my most recent piece I was designing in and out and it took me around a year. I kept coming back to it and I changed the measurements many times. It was a two-metre by one-metre piece and each letter had its own measurement. The story behind this piece is linked to prayer and our connection to Allah.
How do you manage your time?
I don’t have weekends! To be engaged in these works you must enter isolation and focus, and it takes hours and hours of continuous work. To create such a piece, it needs hours of concentration and a lot of preparation. I must mentally prepare for the level of concentration required as well, so I must be in the right frame of mind. And of course, I have another job, so I have to spend hours after work doing it and a lot of time on my weekends.
What is the biggest challenge as a calligrapher?
You will notice that most calligraphers use dark only colours, but from the beginning, I wanted to use brighter colours. Working with colour is an even bigger challenge because it shows your hand movements clearer and there is less room for error. My tutor told me that the big names in the calligraphy world don’t risk their pieces by using colour, but for me, I’m prepared to take the challenge on. It can be very rewarding.
Tell us what you are currently working on.
I am currently redesigning my Van Cleef & Arpels piece for my own collection by adding a third flower. This represents more values that mean a lot to me and to this region. I initially had twelve values and I’m adding another six including tolerance and ethics, and I will be reintroducing the piece with my updated version once it’s finished.
What’s something you would still like to achieve?
A solo exhibition. So far I have only done a semi-solo in 2013 where I showed my work alongside two calligraphers, but at that time I was still starting out. What I’m doing today is totally different, even the quality is different. So I would like to present my own pieces on a solo platform where visitors can understand and immerse themselves in the stories I am telling. I have three or four more pieces to create until I’ll be ready to present them as my first solo exhibition. I want to curate something that will present me as an author as well as an artist and combine the two. It will take a lot of effort but it’s honestly the only exhibition I want to do in my life. It will be something unique for the local calligraphers here in the UAE because we are few and unfortunately people don’t yet consider us to be at the same level as global calligraphers, but we are trying hard to make our mark.
How do you get inspired for the stories that you tell through your works?
Sometimes the letters come first and sometimes it’s the story. When I find works or passages that I like I write them down and I start thinking about the meaning. There is a lot of spiritual connection. Then when I start to think about all the details of the meaning of each word it starts to become art. Sometimes I think about the overall story I want to tell, and the details come together. Sometimes it is based on a personal experience. It is a real process that takes a lot of time and a lot of concentration. Sometimes my clients put pressure on me to create the pieces within a certain timeframe but if there is no story, I cannot present the pieces. It takes a lot of patience on both sides.
Can you share a little about the paper that you use?
My papers are natural and are mostly sourced in Japan. I went to Tokyo and selected them. Once I choose them, the papers are sent to my teacher in Istanbul to be coated with a special treatment. These papers are very natural and thin so you cannot just put ink on them as it would bleed, and if this happens you cannot correct it. So first it goes to Istanbul, and it comes to me after six months because there is a season for coating. When it arrives back after this process, you should ideally you should keep it for another six months to let it settle. So, by the time I started to work on it, it had been more than a year! The scary moment is that if you make a mistake, you have to wait another year for another batch of paper, but I do have a collection, don’t worry! Then of course, once the piece is done there is a whole process for framing and there are so many things to consider around this to ensure the work doesn’t get damaged.
This month we are celebrating Emirati Women’s Day – what does this day mean to you?
For me, it is a very special day because it represents the day when the General Women’s Union was established by Her Highness Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, Mother of the Nation. I was personally supported by this union in 2003 when I was jobless. After I graduated as a Chemical Engineer there was a limitation in hiring women in this field because the community was just starting to understand that Chemical Engineers could be women. I was one of the first batches of women to graduate in this field and there was hesitation to hire us as some people thought women would be incapable of doing the job. So, we struggled to get jobs, especially in Dubai. It took me two years to find a job in the industry and this only happened because the General Women’s Union forced the oil company to take me.
So that’s why this day means so much to me because the Union made my career happen. They really support women, and they are always active behind the scenes. I have met Her Highness Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi twice and she is amazing. First at my graduation from my Bachelor’s Degree. She spoke to me as an engineer and told me how proud she was. She spent time with each of us and spoke to us all in detail. Then I met her again when I did my Master’s degree. Again, she spent a few minutes talking to me and took time to hear my story. These moments meant so much. She is the Mother of the Nation and I was privileged to meet her. She has the charisma of a strong woman, and I was really influenced by her as she continues to deliver a true message around the UAE. She always encourages us and stands behind us. The ladies that work for this union are so humble and kind and I think that reflects her personality.
So I admire that we have a special day that celebrates the achievements of women. Some might say that there is too much light now on women in the UAE, but the journey was not easy for any woman that you see now in the top or unique positions. We have been carrying the responsibility that we need to represent our country in different ways and juggle many things as a woman and without the encouragement, we wouldn’t have reached anywhere.
How do you think things have progressed since your graduation and do you think women are more accepted in these kinds of roles today?
There is a big change for sure. We now have young generations who believe anything is possible and they have seen the changes put into practice. Today, the younger generations know that they can make an impact with their choices and the perception has changed a lot. I always thought I would be only an engineer. But I moved from engineering to aviation, to local government, to the government of the UAE, to politics. I was a very shy person before 2010 and I never thought I would share my views publicly. But many people I worked for pushed me hard in a very tough way to share my views and values and I am very grateful for that.
What advice would you give to other women who want to go for something that might be out of their comfort zone?
They need to be patient. They need to take their journey step by step. Everyone has a story to tell, and you can’t just tell it without having the process of getting there. So be patient. I meet a lot of young people who want the results to be immediate, but it doesn’t happen like this. You need to go through the process, and it won’t always be easy. You also need to take opportunities that are right for you and most importantly, enjoy the journey.
What’s the motto that you live by?
I am a very spiritual person and I always say that good things happen in my life because Allah made the choice for me. I believe that everything that has happened in my life was for a reason.
What can we expect to see from you for the rest of the year?
I’m working on my biggest piece yet which I hope to finish this year. This is going to be a piece that I am very proud of because it will have His Highness Sheikh Zayed’s name on it, and I am trying to summarise his legacy in this piece.