Interviewed by Gabriella Alziari
“I’m very into the idea of taking artwork off a pedestal and putting it into the hands of real people.”
Ellie Balk is a teaching artist from St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 2002, where she earned her BFA in painting. She later earned her MFA in painting from Pratt Institute in 2005. Ellie has lived in Brooklyn for 12 years, where she does a number of curriculum integrated projects in schools. She is also the President of SONYA (South of the Navy Yard Artists), teaches painting and drawing at the 92nd Y, and is the co-founder of Art Camp @ Alamander, an arts camp for children ages 8-14.
What was your first exposure to art?
I never knew I wanted to be a painter until I became one. I took a longer road than my peers to get to college, but when I got there, I took a course in philosophy and was awakened by Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. He spoke about the lack of aura and authenticity of artwork when we see it in reproduction: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” It was when I was studying in Italy that his ideas came alive to me. Everywhere I would go there were works of art that jumped out of the textbooks and postcards. I started to become enraged with all the restoration that was happening. In efforts to stop time and preserve history, I felt like we were erasing the life of the work behind the work.
I became really inspired to create work that could be an experience and allowed for participation and interaction. My first pieces were what I called 2D sculptures, where the viewer could touch and manipulate the work by moving things around, opening doors, participating in the creation of the resulted image. When I got back to the States, I had a big studio and started painting a lot and really big. I would invite people to paint with me and started making a lot of collaborative work. This process made sense to me and took the preciousness away from the work and created an experience.
When I moved to Brooklyn to get my Masters at Pratt, I was interested in exploring these ideas more. I started learning more about the New York art scene in the 50s and 60s and was really inspired by the Flux movement and Happenings. My work became about documenting my life and other interactions between people through art. Public art is in line with my ideas of making art present and authentic to the experience of now. I like the fact that murals are temporal. They are not precious, they are open to the elements, they allow for interaction and collaboration, they create ownership for everyone involved, they are specific to place and experience, all while carrying the power to change a landscape. I’m very into the idea of taking artwork off a pedestal and putting it into the hands of real people.
Tell us about your work.
In Grad school, I started documenting everything around me and creating some of my first infographics. Through color and abstraction, I create systems to tell information. I am inspired by the information and want there to be an investigation and interaction with the work. I want people to “read” the work. The murals I create look formally abstract, but when you step into them, they reveal information. In order to do this, my role as an artist shifts from creator to composer. There is a double meaning for those involved and those who see it. It is important when making work with the community that they feel a sense of confidence and ease. I find the infographic murals to be a great tool for this. The data and color coding provides a strict structure. I thought that the connection to the work would be hurt by the structure, but I find that people feel more connected when they have a specific direction. It then becomes even more collaborative in a way, because everyone is working towards a finished piece. I love when people walk by the work and say, “I did that!”
Describe your creative process.
My creative process is part magic, part luck and a whole lot of planning.
What are some of your goals as an artist?
My goal in making public art is to involve the community as much as possible and to get people to experience a connection to the space and to each other. This direct engagement with the public facilitates a dialog that builds community. Artwork made with the public needs to employ this intimacy with the community and allow a direct link to the space. Each mural I make speaks to different needs depending on the wall, the community and data that is being visualized. Underneath each set the goal is always connection and experience. I’d like to say that I embrace change. Maybe it’s being in Brooklyn for the last 12 years that just makes this a reality. As a muralist, I get to work with communities and give them a voice for change. Murals allow a very direct approach to a connection to space and an ownership to a place.
Can you talk about the work you do in schools?
I work with high school students to create permanent installations in their schools and neighborhoods. For the last 8 years, I’ve been working as a teaching artist. I go into schools and do artist residencies, creating permanent installations. I do a lot of curriculum integration, which consists of working with teachers and creating artwork to help students better understand information. I also do some beautification projects.
I started my residency work at The Green School six years ago. Initially, my schedule was structured so that I taught during the first and sixth periods, so I spent the remaining time sitting in on classes. As I sat through math classes, I became fascinated by math again—all of a sudden, the teacher was teaching, and I would be drawing pictures. That is where the idea of creating images for math came from.
For example, in my Visualize Pi project with The Green School, I assist students with creating visualizations, which helps them learn. I don’t come at the students as an expert. We learn things together.
The math we do together is not really high-level; it’s mostly just measuring. However, it makes the students more confident. We are tracking test scores and watching them rise, and the kids are gaining friendships from these projects that continue beyond school. This idea is changing lives… not a lot of them, but about four at a time, and that’s amazing.
This year, I am working with three schools—I found two of them through my agency, BRIC Arts|Media|Bklyn.
How do you find being an art teacher?
I feel like an artist first and a teacher second. I love the opportunity to collaborate with the teachers and the students and to create an experience that is at a different pace then they are used to.
How long does it take you to plan the projects you use in schools?
It depends on the project. Generally, I come in with an idea and start working with students. I’m really into data visualization and creating visualizations for the curriculum they’re given. I think that this helps visual learners comprehend the information.
I don’t only do art projects with the students, either. I spent the first half of the last school year with students who were taking the Regents Exam. Once a week, I would go through their notes with them, helping them to color code things and think of creative ways to process the information. This brought how I see the world into the classroom.
In the second half of the same year, the students and I worked on a mosaic project, focused on geometric transformations in mosaic. In this case, I had the idea before I walked in to the structure of it.
It’s tough doing a permanent installation in a school. There is a lot of planning involved, such as talking with the building master and the principal.
Can you tell us about your wedding maps?
One summer I went to 5 weddings, so I started making wedding maps of the geographical history of both partners, mapping them out on top of each other as if they were always together. I wanted to track how their different paths led to one another.
Choose a favorite piece and tell us about how it was made. What are you proud of?
I love every project for different reasons, so I can’t choose a favorite. Each project is an experience both during its creation and afterwards. I love that public art is an experience that’s still ‘happening’.
Visualize Pi is great because it has a following. We included the hashtag #VisualizePi on the mural, so there is a new person who posts on Instagram every day with it. It was interesting for me to get that voice. The whole thing was painted and put up pretty quickly. I remember just laughing when I saw the end result—it was kind of ridiculous! It’s this bright, abstract sound wave. People are always trying to figure it out. It’s probably my wackiest visualization. To me, the system that I came up with for representing the prime numbers as colors makes sense, but it’s really not obvious at all.
A project I absolutely loved was the sound wave I did in 2011. The project was supported by Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership and funded by an NEA grant and took a year of preparation. The wall is owned by the state, so there were lots of approvals to be made. It’s the biggest mural I had done and it inspired by a lot of other projects. There was true collaboration between other artists, including musicians, which ended up inspiring so much of my work. I feel like that’s something that is still going.
Is it challenging to be a woman in your field? If so, how have you persevered through previous challenges?
I haven’t found being a woman challenging in that way.
What is the best part about being an artist?
I don’t feel like I chose this necessarily… it was a privilege to be able to take this risk and I’m grateful for that. So I would say that the best part about being an artist is having the privilege to take the risk.
Are you working on any projects currently?
I’m collaborating with musicians to create the beat of Pi and to represent what Pi sounds like. The project will roll out next spring. One of the artists is Bill Brovold; he has his own band and he’s a sound artist. He’s currently creating a composition based on Pi. I hope to give people the image as a graphic score. I want to put together a Pi concert. There’s a lot of wacky Pi people out there!
One day I was walking with another teacher, and as we were passing the fence that goes all the way around the school, I mentioned that it would be cool to visualize Pi on the bars of the fence.
There are endless and irrational ideas!