Name: Ellie Balk Clinton Hill Resident For: 4 years
On June 19, I met up with Clinton Hill resident Ellie Balk at the Polish Bar of Brooklyn for Coco Kiwi Pedicures and a bottle of il Mimo, donated generously by the Greene Grape.
Drawn to Brooklyn for graduate programs at Pratt four years ago, artist Ellie Balk has made a home in Clinton Hill. Balk still lives in the St. James Place studio apartment she found on her first day of apartment hunting, and has just signed on for another two years.
Balk is both an accomplished painter and art teacher, and has long been a proponent of collaborative creations. When she teaches, Balk encourages students to put marks down on paper and then react to them, encouraging people to open up, moving physically and emotionally.
Much of Balk’s energy is spent on designing murals for public schools and local communities. Often times, she will encourage participants to begin painting whatever they’d like. Throughout the process, Balk controls only the available paint colors the participants are using, giving them access to colors of similar tones and families for different periods of time to help create continuity. Later, Balk and a few other artists add finishing touches, tying the community’s creations together into one unified final product.
While most of Balk’s community murals are painted on walls, she must occasionally improvise. During last summer’s St. James Place Association block party, Balk was forced to conduct mural painting on paper at St. James and Gates, after the owner of the corner’s scaffolding decided not to allow painting directly on the wood. Neighbors took part enthusiastically regardless, even bringing their own paper from home to add on to the growing design. Mural painting lasted for twelve hours that day, attracting the attention and participation of countless neighbors and passers by. Balk not only coordinated the mural’s painting, but also procured all of her supplies ahead of time by soliciting donations. Sisters Hardware on Fulton came through in a big way, as did local residents.
Many of Balk’s community murals are created in the shape of a circle, symbolizing the idea of getting back what one puts in to their surroundings. “You need to know your community to be a part of it,” Balk explains. The circle seems to represent Balk’s personal ideals, and she sports several tattoos of the motif. Currently, she is working with Tillie’s on planning a circular community mural on the building’s side, at Vanderbilt and DeKalb. Both the owner of Tillie’s and the building owners’ are on-board, but Balk is waiting for final approval from Landmarks. Unlike her block party mural, Balk will paint most of the mural herself before the public contributes. She plans on painting a large map of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and then allowing members of the community to paint a small mark over where they live, a technique she uses often in school murals. “When people look at the map, they see how close we really live to one another,” Balk says. “Tillie’s is the perfect location for painting the map, at the crossroads of these two neighborhoods.”
To sit with Balk is to understand what makes urban living so appealing. Like so many people, she really “gets” what our neighborhood is about, and is able to articulate it through both words and actions. The circle motif makes perfect sense for Clinton Hill, with a diverse population of individuals like Balk stepping up to integrate their interests into the community.
Balk can be found frequenting local haunts often, citing “The Red Door (her name for Grand 275)” as her favorite hangout. “Luz has the best brunch for sure, and Olea is the best date place – so chill!” She mentions Zaytoons and Castros as well, before exclaiming, “I love my Fulton!” I look at her skeptically, but she’s not joking. “Kush is great, and Joloff? It’s my cure. They cook everything to order and their hot ginger drink is an instant pick-me-up when you’re feeling sick.” Later, Balk gives props to the Pratt Coffee shop for “sincerely taking care of her hunger needs for the past four years.”
On local restaurants and shops in general, she says, “You can just feel something precious [inside]. Someone loves this space and is sharing it with me. The genuine feeling is the whole theme of the neighborhood.”
Balk loves the diversity of Clinton Hill, especially on her street, and explores often. “I go for a two-hour walk, and it’s never the same!” she exclaims. If Balk were a flavor of ice cream, it would be "Cinnamon," she says, "'Cause I'm sweet and a little spicy!"