The Process: Making a Public Mural
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Ellie Balk makes public art projects with community organizations across the country. Each year for the past three years, she's run a project for a Pi-themed mural, each one visually depicting some aspect of Pi, and done in collaboration with students. Her third project, currently live, is Visualize Pi: Perspective.
Talk to us about the first mural you ever organized.
It was a collaborative mural during a block party on my street in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. I had just graduated from Pratt institute where I got my masters in painting with a focus on collaboration. I was excited to take my work out of the institution and work directly with my neighbors. There was a burned out building at the end of the block that had been vacant for over three years.
I asked people to keep the brush they were using with the paint, and not to paint any words or recognizable symbols. There was some graffiti on the wood fence that I liked, so we worked with those shapes and I asked people to stay within those lines. These were the only rules, and it allowed us to create a collaborative image. Young, old, artist, non-artist built up the image layer by layer to create something that was truly collective. As it turned out, that wall stayed up for almost six more years. I loved walking by and hearing people say “I painted that!”
This work was really inspirational and remains a backbone to my practice as a muralist. For me, it’s not just about painting a wall with an image, it’s about creating an experience for people that allows them to feel a connection to each other and an ownership of the space.
How do you find the sites for these murals?
The site and the community often inspire my work. It's usually easier to have someone offer a wall then it is to find my own wall, but if I have an image or idea in my mind, it might need a specific place. I’m always looking at buildings. If you flip through the pictures on my phone, you would see a lot of blank walls of dream locations for ideas I might not even have yet.
Every situation and every city has different laws for permitting. If I paint a mural on New York City or New York State owned property, I need a permit. If I paint on a building that is landmarked, I need to get an additional permit from the landmarks commission and it needs to be approved by the community board. If we need to block off the sidewalk or street, we need a permit from the Department of Transportation. Every wall in every city is different. This is why I like to partner with organizations in the neighborhood.
Could you walk us through what goes into making a mural, from start to finish?
I start by meeting with community organizations to share my past work and ideas for new projects. I ask them about good partners, and what walls might be available to work on. From there, we do site visits and meet with possible partners and residents. Once I establish these relationships and get the wall, then I can start the planning and fundraising.
In planning for the Visualize Pi and math based mural projects, my collaborator (and Green School Assistant Principal) Nathan Affield and I sit down and share ideas, I’ll create some sketches, and then we present them to the students. The students always take the ideas in a new direction and inspire changes. The next step for us is fundraising. In the past, we have sought out local grants to support our projects, but in recent years, those opportunities have disappeared. Kickstarter has been a really great platform for us to not only raise funds for our project, but it has also allows us to create a unique and committed community around our work.
Once we have secured the funding, we start prepping for the project. This means getting permits if needed, ordering supplies, organizing community volunteers, scheduling time for the students, and letting the community know what’s going on. We establish our crew of student artists. We prime our wall get the image up there. For the math-based murals, we have been able to use the patterns from the building materials to graph out the data and get the image on the wall.
Then we paint! Our lead student artists keep things running smoothly. Curious neighbors and community groups come to help, and teachers bring their classes out. Painting usually takes a couple weeks. It goes up quick, but then we spend a lot of time tweaking and cleaning up the image. The visualizations are very tight, and it takes a lot of time, practice and concentration to make the lines clean.
Once we finish, we celebrate with a dedication and ribbon cutting. We invite the community and work to get food and drinks. This is a good time to invite our funders, backers, press and community supporters to meet the kids and get to know more about the project. If we are lucky, there is a conversation about the next project!
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