Mirella “Ella” Salamé

It’s easy to get lost in Beirut’s compulsive pace and forget to escape. Wise Beiruti’s know it’s necessary to get out of the city’s grip every once in a while – to spend a night in their family’s village, to take a road trip to some unexplored corner or a hike through the mountains. Mirella Salamé, also known simply as Ella, tries to spend as much time in Lebanon’s great outdoors as possible. The visual artist treasures the moments when she can just daydream, collect leaves and stare at the stars in nature’s peace and calm. The 28-year-old moved back in with her parents in Adonis, a built-up suburban town overlooking both the Mediterranean Sea and a power station, before leaving Lebanon for Switzerland, where she was awarded a Master’s scholarship in Visual Arts at École Cantonale d’Art du Valais.

Despite her urban surroundings, entering Ella’s room and studio is like a sanctuary. Her presence has an immediate calming influence: you want to take your shoes off, play a record on the gramophone and stare at the leaves, handbound books, delicate ornaments and paintings that decorate her carefully organised space. Nothing in Ella’s room is meaningless; every detail has a sentimental, spiritual or inspirational value. She paints her compositions on wood, using boards that she finds on the street and has a “communication” with. Her room is full of wood too, like the cherished wooden boxes made by her father. “I feel wood is the closest to nature, it’s so much like a tree. I love to touch it, I love to scratch, to feel its pores. I feel it has a soul.”

This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site.

Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/Freunde von Freunden — Mirella “Ella” Salamé — Artist, Apartment & Studio, Adoinis, Beirut — http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/mirella-ella-salame/

What’s your neighborhood like?
I live in Adonis. I don’t especially like the neighborhood. I live with my parents. I moved back recently because I’m traveling soon so I wanted to spend more time with them.

Why don’t you like Adonis?
It’s very built up and full of buildings and boxes. You feel the area has no room to breathe. And there are only a few natural green areas.

You’re traveling to Switzerland soon to study for your Master’s in Visual Arts. What will you miss about Lebanon?
I love the country but I don’t like the society here. I like that I can easily visit natural places that are so beautiful. The road trips. I love the small group of friends that I have. But I don’t like the society. The system hasn’t changed since I was born and it’s really suffocating sometimes.

What are you looking forward to about living in Switzerland?
The calm, the sound of trains, and my Master’s.

What frustrates you about being an artist in Lebanon?
If someone is an artist it is difficult to establish themselves here, unless you are supported by your family or have a job on the side. I am not a businesswoman and I don’t know how to do commercial work. I wish I knew how to do these things, maybe it would have been easier for me. I am conscious of wider issues, like where my waste is going and seeing the Karantina trash mountain in Lebanon grow bigger every day. This is partly why I use recycled materials in my work.

But you still have a deep connection to the country. What do you love about life in Lebanon?
I love the Arabic language. How it looks, how it sounds. The Arabic poetry, the old Lebanese music, the oud, Fairouz’s voice, the smell of coffee, the olive oil soap, the warmth of families in the old villages and how welcoming they are. The strength of old people who have endured a war, and another war, and another… yet their fragility, how they still have light in their eyes. Some individuals are as beautiful as a tree. It’s a very culturally rich country and in all this disorder, there’s always something beautiful. You see people smiling, socializing, and helping each other. And it is also this chaos that gives birth to many unique souls. In my surroundings, there are artists whose works are like a mirror to their experiences, and it’s amazing.

How does your love for nature inspire you when making your work?
Nature is a major inspiration for me. I can’t really say what exactly. I love the leaves, the colors, the sound of the water, the birds. I find more truth in nature than in the city. The city is constructed. Beirut is inspiring, but it’s not as authentic as nature. Nature is also inside of us, it’s the silent part we can get in touch with. We are nature, we’re made out of it and we’ll go back to it. I love the expression “mother nature”, it’s true.

How much time do you get to spend outdoors?
Sometimes I get busy and I forget to go for a walk and spend time in nature. And after a while I feel heavy. Then I realize it’s because I need to recharge, to listen to nature and breathe clean air; to get outdoors.

What did you do this weekend?
Last night I went to watch the stars in a village above Bologna. It’s the village where I come from. There was a meteor shower so I just went to lie down and watch the stars. It’s something I really enjoy doing.

Why do you use wood as the foundation for your paintings?
I love wood. It really inspires me. I find the boards that I work on in the street and in backyards. Sometimes they are part of a table. But I don’t take just any wooden board that I find – I choose the one I feel I am inspired by or drawn to. There needs to be a certain communication between the board and me. The pieces of wood have an inherent history – they show their wear and are already scratched or damp. I love that. Then I use different painting techniques using acrylics and oils often to make collage. Sometimes I utilize real tree leaves.

There are a lot of leaves in your room…
I didn’t realize I had such an obsession with leaves! But then I realized that so many of my notebooks are full of leaves. No matter how I try to paint, I will never be able to make a picture as beautiful as a leaf. To me they are truly masterpieces in themselves.

When did you start painting?
I started painting when I was a small child. Although I did stop for a few years. In reflection, this was at a time when I was not really close to myself. I was passing through my teenage times, my early twenties and was distracted with other things.

And you write too?
Yes, I also write poetry and small prose. I have actually made a small book but I didn’t publish it. I just made three copies by hand, and then I gave one to a friend.

What do you write about in your poems and prose?
Simple matters. Fleeting matters.

You have a Klimt print above your bed. Is he a major inspiration?
Yes I love Klimt, he is one of my all time favorite. I also love Modigliani and Egon Schiele. I derive a lot of my inspiration from their work. But actually I’m not as inspired by painters as I am by musicians. What inspires me the most besides nature is music.

I love your gramophone. Where is it from?
It was a gift from a dear friend from my last birthday. It’s one of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever had. I had tears in my eyes when I received it. I love the scratching sound, it’s so authentic. I already had a collection of records but I didn’t have a player. Now it is one of my favorite things.

What music do you like to listen to in your room?
Recently I discovered Field Rotation. Their music is so inspiring and beautiful. I also like Chopin and Set Fire to Flames, it’s a side project of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, so post-rock. When I listen to them I can’t paint. The music is so strong I just want to listen. Beside classical and post-rock, I love oriental jazz such as Anouar Brahem, old jazz such as Coltrane and Billie Holiday, Dark Jazz such as the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, and also folk and ambient. It depends on the time of the day and the situation. But this is a hard question because I admit music is one thing I’m addicted to and obsessed with. If I continue naming artists it would probably take the whole day.

Is the rest of your family creative?
I think my Father is an artist but he doesn’t know it! He made these exquisite wooden boxes for me. He made a shelf for me as well. The result is always so beautiful because it’s full of hand crafted imperfections which reveal an authenticity. He doesn’t really realize how beautiful they are, I consider them masterpieces. And my sisters’ children, of course. Children are so creative. And my Mother when she cooks!

Has your family always been supportive of your creative pursuits?
Yes. Even if at first they might not have understood what I’m doing, little by little I felt the support growing.

How do you spend your time at home?
I mostly listen to music. I read. And I sleep. I love to sleep. I rarely can though however, because I have insomnia. But I love it when it happens, it just absorbs me. Insomnia also inspires me. Sometimes I just lay down and can’t sleep and often get into a dream-like state. When this happens I often start painting or taking pictures.

What’s the most precious possession in your room?
A lock of my mother’s hair. The first time she asked me to cut her hair, I cut it and kept this lock. I don’t think she knows that I keep it behind my bed. Oh, and maybe my paintbrush. I’m not really attached to my things actually. I like to collect things from nature, but if I lose things I don’t really mind. I am not materialistic in this way.

Lebanon has such beautiful nature, but there’s a lack of respect for the environment. Why do you think that is?
It really saddens me. Every time I go out into nature, I find trash. Every time I see this, I start cleaning. It really annoys me to see a plastic bag in the middle of a green space. I really feel people who are part of the community should be more conscious of their actions and consider the effect of human impact on the environment. Each individual has a role to play.

Where do you like to hang out in Beirut?
I rarely hang out in pubs, cafés or restaurants in Beirut. If I do, I go to Abou Elie, a small pub in Hamra, to name one. But my favorite place to be is in the warmth of a friend’s house, if not in an outdoor space.

What would you recommend a visitor to do in Beirut?
Top of the list is the beach. Of course I mean the sea, not the private swimming resorts. And for that, visitors will have to go to the South or to the North.

Thanks so much Ella for sharing your story and introducing us to your neighborhood. To find out more about Ella’s artistic practice see here.

This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site. Have a look here.

Interview & Text: Natasha Stallard
Photography: Tanya Traboulsi