Ellie Balk: Mapmaking in Color and Sound

Ellie at the BRIC Kids Art Opening 2006, with the map she created that featured each of her middle school student's buildings and their respective locations on the map of Brooklyn, NY
In 2006 I was commissioned by BRIC Contemporary Art to make a documentary about an arts-in-education residency in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn middle school IS 49. One of the teaching artists I documented for A Partnership Grows in Brooklyn was Ellie Balk, who was making large-scale maps with her classes based on each student's home in the neighborhood. I was struck by her use of color and the bold style that resulted from her very involved collaborative art/teaching process of mapping the neighborhood, placing each student's home on the map, projecting maps onto the wall, mixing colors, and drawing off then painting the finished product on 6-foot-high wooden panels, which later went on to be exhibited at BRIC Rotunda Gallery in Brooklyn Heights.  I was intrigued by this beautiful, colorful and empowering (to the youth involved) use of mapping, especially because I was personally involved in making my own map paintings at the time.

Double Braids! At Roxy Paine show at James Cohen Gallery.
Ellie and I kept in touch, and began to have fun art adventures around the city . . . here is a video of a case in point: a creative excursion to EyebeamWe kept comparing notes on our similar art-making tendencies and dreams, and soon our conversation evolved to a plot to create a project together. In late 2007 we began planning a collaborative endeavor called Doll Neighborhood, which took shape in the Spring of 2008. Our call-to-artists, series of sewing/making events with 29 local artists, and culminating exhibition and video proved to be a transformative experience. Through it I could see Ellie come alive in her element of shepherding artists through a collective vision, toward an awe-inspiring product. 

Ellie Balk & community, Tillie's Mural Project, 2008
Ever since I have known her, Ellie has been working tirelessly to create community-made murals throughout Brooklyn, particularly in her home neighborhood of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. She even spearheaded a Mural Arts Fund within the South of the Navy Yard Artist community group, to further her mission of beautifying the public walls in the area. Ellie's murals always involve her community, especially the pre-teen to high school set, and they all carry Ellie's beautiful marks of distinction: that rich, summery, color-field-referencing palette, and those carefully placed lines that create a beautiful symbol of the landscape around the mural, and yet mark a place of their own. This past summer, Ellie took her mural-making to the surface of a piano, and participated as one of artists in Sing for Hope's Pop Up Piano project. Various painted pianos were installed all over the city (see map at link above), and Ellie's was placed near the Prospect Park Carousel in Brooklyn. You can see more information and some videos of people playing Ellie's piano hereBelow are some photos I took, and a short video I put together of the culmination of the project, a performance Ellie did with pianist Samantha Bassler on June 26:

It's all in the details: Toni Ann of Brooklyn Treat Shoppe created cupcakes in the color scheme of Ellie's piano, and she and Ellie arranged them as an extension of the painted lines.
E.S. Frushtick of Project Pause films Ellie as one of the featured New Yorkers in Thru|Lines film project.

Ellie is currently working on her largest-scale mural to date, a 130' section of wall located under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). The Soundwaves Mural project, funded by the NEA, all started with lines that Ellie drew, tracking the distance between the hands of nine pianists as they played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Ellie's mission with this project is to "beautify the landscape in the negative space under the BQE." This monumental undertaking is truly an inspirational extension of her Sing for Hope piano painting/performance project, and a wondrous site to behold (which I did this past week, when I visited and saw her painting with her crew from a local high school). I asked Ellie some questions about her work, and this project:  

How do you see this project as an extension of your previous mural projects?

My mural work has been about collecting data and visualizing it in an artistic way.  In the form of a map, graph or web, the work is seemingly abstract when you first look at it, but as the viewer gets closer, they can "read" the image and formalize the data.  In the Soundwaves mural project, I worked with pianists and drew the distance between their hands as they were playing the Moonlight Sonata.  This "data" was then layered together to create an over-all landscape.  In this way, I am mapping out the music.  

Talk a little bit about the convergence of ugliness and beauty in Brooklyn as a whole (since you live and work here) and upon/under the BQE (since you chose this as the location of your mural)?

In doing research about the BQE, I came across this fact:  "Once [Robert] Moses drew his proposed route for the BQE on the map, his engineers were able to transform this "line on a map" into a highway. This often meant clearing block after block of neighborhoods, often in the name of "slum clearance" (source). I was inspired by this insensitive idea of drawing a line on a map to design the highway.  In Clinton Hill, the devastation from this "line" is obvious.  But there is some life that has been springing up on the cut off block between Park and the Navy Yard.  I wanted to create this bright, colorful mural for that community.  It's exciting to work in that area and to start to visualize that space in a different way.  I hope that we can reclaim and better utilize the area under the BQE.

Talk about the choice of Moonlight Sonata, and the relationship of this piece to the BQE.

I feel like the Moonlight Sonata found me, before this mural project was conceived.  Over two years ago I was hanging out with Jazz Musician Mike Brown and I was really inspired by our conversations about improvisation and avant-garde composing.  I became really interested in this idea of composing music through drawing line. He worked with me on my initial ideas of just listening to music.  I have no music training and when we started I was just trying to separate the instruments that I was hearing in compositions.  He started with classical music.  On my own, I continued this journey into learning how to listed and I starting listening Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  When I was accepted to paint a piano for the Sing For Hope Piano project, I started concentrating on piano sonatas.  When I heard the Moonlight Sonata, I was so moved by its pace and emotion, I didn't put it down.  In the beginning of this journey, I was drawing the music through headphones. I was drawing with my left and right hand, trying to get the distance between the hands as it was playing.  

But as I mentioned before, I have no musical training, so this line was just as much about pace and emotion as it was about the highs and lows in the tones.  When the mural came about, it seemed obvious to keep with my idea and work with pianists in their studios and draw the distance of their hands as they were playing. This was a journey into learning how to listen and the connections I made with these artists were so sincere to that mission.  The level of collaboration was incredible. I gave the musicians a line drawing that I composed from just listening to the Moonlight Sonata and they have created a score...based on my line!  It's so exciting!  

The placement of this piece under the BQE, just makes sense.  The lines on the mural match the design of the space under the overpass.  The colors are reflective of the buildings near by.  And the lyrical base of the line connects with the sound of the bustling traffic above our heads.  I really hope that one day, I can get the pianists together for a performance where they can play the lines on the mural and compose a new score! 

What are the top two reasons why you love to do community murals?

I love meeting the people who live in the areas that I paint in and the collaborations that grow out of that. I enjoy giving people the opportunity to be part of the piece and claim ownership of their neighborhood.   One of my favorite moments was when I was introducing a mural project at a school near where I had organized a collaborative community mural.  I was going though some slides and a girl in the room yelled out "I did that!"  That's why I love what I do.

Tell us the most amazing thing so far, about this BQE project.

This whole project has come together really smoothly and has been amazing all along the way.  I love the collaboration and connections I have made with the pianists and the community.  I love that this mural is tucked away and has to be found or discovered, and that it fits so perfectly under the overpass.  Working with Meredith from MARP has been great. They have been so supportive and do so much for the community.

What is one thing you are looking forward to in your art and/or teaching?

I am really looking forward to continuing this journey.  I feel that this project is a seed growing and I'm excited that the mural is not the end of it.  We will see where it goes...

• • • •

Ellie is still seeking volunteers for this amazing Soundwaves Mural. Ellie and crew will be painting Sun, Sept 25, Mon-Wed, Sept 26-28, and Fri Sept 30, from 11am-2pm and 2-5pm each day. Visit the Soundwaves Mural Under the BQE project blog, or just sign up to volunteer. After the 30th, please take some time to visit the mural itself, at Park Avenue, near Steuben/Grand Streets, under the BQE. You will be glad you experienced this slice of Brooklyn life, music and color. Here are more details, if you'd like to pick up a paintbrush:

Get Involved! Pick up a brush and join us!
• Sign up for a shift (11am-2pm or 2pm-5pm) at http://tinyurl.com/BQE-MuralProject
• Organize a group from your organization or civic group to do a volunteer shift as a team
• Bring a group of students (ages 8+) on a field trip to participate for a shift
• Spread the word to your neighbors and friends, and get them to sign up too!
• Contact Ellie Balk at elliebalk (at) gmail.com or at 718-930-7177, or meredith (at) myrtleavenue.org


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Rachel Federman said...

That was the woman we ran into...on the magical Sarnoff night, right? When was that...I am losing track...end of Spring? Pieces from our conversation keep resurfacing. Reading your blog makes me feel grounded in the swirling, hallucinogenic, kaleidoscope of the New York art world where I usually feel so lost.

Rachel Federman said...

Checked in here...hoping you might still be writing at this space. Man - this feels like so long ago Kristin!