Ellie Balk is an artist obsessed with color, pattern, data and mathematics. She creates large scale data visualization public artworks using paint, glass, sound and most recently ceramics. Community engagement and interaction is at the core of her work. 

Ellie lives in Brooklyn, while working internationally.  Her public artwork can be experienced across the United State, extensively throughout New York City and St. Louis, Missouri and Internationally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mae Rim, Thailand in Saint Louis, Senegal and Marrakech, Morocco. 

Ellie has worked with High schools students across the United States in creating public art that visualizes mathematics and her ideas have been adapted for use in elementary and high school mathematics curriculum. Her work developed with her teaching partner Tricia Stanley (Brooklyn) in Visualizing Mathematics has been published nationally and internationally through the Bridges Conference (Sweden) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (Connecticut, Chicago, New Orleans). 

She loves when she can use data as a tool to bring people together.  Her visualization workshops have strengthened groups with the Kemper Museum (St. Louis), teams within Google (New York), KOC school (Istanbul, Turkey) and with the National Academy of Design (New York). 

Ellie holds a Bachelors of Fine Art from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a Masters of Fine Art from Pratt Institute. 

Episode Notes

Ellie | Website | Instagram | Twitter

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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, I am very excited to talk with Ellie Balk about her work. Who is Ellie Balk you might ask? Well, you’re about to find out, obviously, when you’re going to listen to the show. But Ellie is an artist working in the confluence, the intersection of data and a variety of different mediums or media – I don’t know what the right plural world is here, let’s just stick with mediums. She works on pianos, she works with stained glass, she works with murals, ceilings, glass. It is amazing. Her work is fantastic. There is a link to her website in the show notes that you should definitely check out, and she takes data into the community and works with the community, which we know is so important, not just to accurately represent the data that we’re working on, but also so that the community will embrace and use our visualizations. So Ellie is working in this public space, something that I’m really excited about to see, and to hear more about her work and her background. So I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s episode of the show. Here’s my conversation with Ellie Balk. 

Jon Schwabish: Hey Ellie, good morning. 

Ellie Balk: Good morning. 

JS: How are you? 

EB: I’m good. 

JS: Welcome to the show. I’m really excited to chat with you. I don’t often get to chat with artists. It’s usually data geeks and nerds and people steeped in their computer, and so, I’m excited to chat with somebody who has like stained glass right behind you, which is like, pop of color on the show. Is that a color wheel on the door? I just noticed the color wheel on the door.

EB: Yeah. 

JS: Yeah, that’s pretty great. I always want to do something with the doors in my office, and I never know what to put on the back of them, so maybe a color wheel will be a good like burst of color. 

EB: Yeah. 

JS: So I saw your work on Twitter, really excited to chat about what you do, how you’re inspired, and how you combine the data with the art. So maybe we could start with a little bit of your background, talk about how you got to where you are, and how you sort of pull from these two – I don’t want to say polar opposites, but pretty different areas of art and data. 

EB: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me, I’m excited. And I’ve never been on the podcast before, so I’m a little nervous, that’s okay. 

JS: Well, the dozens of listeners will be very excited. 

EB: So I didn’t have a drive to make art. When I was a kid, I didn’t take art classes. I didn’t even take art classes in high school. But when I was in high school, I met this art therapist, and it really kind of opened my eyes into making in order to heal. And so, that’s kind of where my background was, and I went to school at Bowling Green State University, and I originally went for art therapy in undergraduate program. But when I got there, it was like they were grandfathering it out, and the teacher was horrible. The program, the book was like this pink book and it had a duck on it, it was paperback. And it was just like the first class we just read, like the entire introduction to the book, and I was like, this is not going to work for me. 

So I dropped the therapy part and just focused on the art part, and was able to do a study abroad program through Bowling Green, which was great, and I went to Italy for a year, and that’s when I was first studying aesthetics, and I learned about Walter Benjamin and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and that’s all about the art and authenticity of a work when you see it as an original. So I had taken an anthology art history class, so I get to Italy, and I’m seeing all this work that I just studied. We’re seeing it come off the page in real life, and I had a really powerful experience. But then also, I’m seeing all this artwork behind scaffolding and being restored, and then, seeing the work of Giacometti, like, pristine and bright, and it’s like, this is not what it’s supposed to be. And as a normal 20-year-old learning something for the first time I was enraged, you know. I’m like, this isn’t right, we must take art off the pedestal. 

JS: Right. 

EB: But really that is, kind of, the seed of the work that I’m making now. I really wanted to make work that was interactive that you could touch. I started making 2D sculptures. When I was in Italy, I had a lot of really big ideas, and a lot of, I felt really seen there by my professors, and they gave me a studio. They were like, okay, let’s just put you an advanced painting or whatever, I’m giving you studio, but I wasn’t painting. But as soon as I got in there, I started painting. So I didn’t have a formal education, because when I got back to Bowling Green, I was kind of like, in advanced painting classes, so I got kind of fast tracked through that, and just really started a lot of collaborative work there.

JS: So when you were doing your studies, what type of painting were you doing? Was it abstract art? 

EB: Well, when I first started painting, I was like, playing with anything that wasn’t a paintbrush. So it was really about like the physicality of it, doing a lot of impasto and painting with the palette knife. But, for me, I mean, I was doing oil painting, and that’s when I really realized that I had, kind of, an innate relationship with color. There was something, I could visualize a color and be able to mix it all the time. And so, my colors really like came through painting and oil painting specifically, which I haven’t done in 20 years. 

JS: I got you. So before we get into the data piece, so a lot of your work, and a link to your website on the show notes, so people can – for folks who don’t know, there’s a big portfolio of images of your art. A lot of it is stained glass, so I’m curious, where did you add that skill into your tool.

EB: Like, a year ago. 

JS: Wow. 

EB: Yeah, now, the stained glass is like pretty new. I did a couple projects using stained glass with my private teaching partner in Brooklyn, and we worked with high school students, and I did a couple of stained glass projects with the high school students. But as far as my work, it’s only been in like the last year. 

JS: Wow, that’s pretty cool. 

EB: It’s a fun meeting, and I’ve been super into it. 

JS: Yeah. So you go to Italy, you have the awakening, the art awakening, so where does the data piece come in? 

EB: So I mean, I think it was kind of always there. I mean, I think when I went to grad school, so after Bowling Green, I took some time, then I moved to New York, I went to Pratt and got my Master’s in Fine Art there and I was doing a lot of the collaborative stuff, but I was really – looking back on it now, it seems really fresh. But when I was making it, it was like, I was just making work about things that were happening to me every day. So it was data visualization. But when you’re in the moment making work about the moment, it has no value. 

JS: Right. 

EB: So I kind of got rid of everything, and now I’m looking back, and I remember this one painting I made for my niece’s second birthday that I was missing, and she’s 20 now, and, like, how cool it would be to have this – it was really fresh. But in the moment I was working on sound objects, and so, the data kind of started there, or made it seem like it wasn’t so far off. I was doing a lot of collaborative work, my thesis show was like throwing a party, and I had people clocking in and out, so it was like collecting [inaudible 00:09:54] people roles, and they had to wear and made them crowns, and it was so fun. And we played games, and I was collecting data in that. But my first public art piece, which is called You Are Here, which is on the corner of Vanderbilt and DeKalb, like, where the neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Fort Greene come together, I made this in 2008, and this is when there was just a lot of gentrification, a lot of change happening in the neighborhood. We had this flea market come in, the Brooklyn Flea, and it brought in droves of people from other neighborhoods. And from Manhattan, they’re looking around, like, oh, this is nice. 

So I saw a lot of my neighbors moving out things that were cool about that, and I missed my neighbors, but they had bought those houses for $20-30,000, and they’re selling them for $4 million. They’re leaving a legacy for their family. But the neighborhood was just changing so much. I mean, the faces were changing, and the vibe was changing, so I wanted to create a piece that really celebrated home. So I decided to do a circle map, and I took out all the street name – actually, I have a tattoo over here. 

JS: Wow, oh yeah, okay.

EB: I took out all the street names, and then, I invited people to come and put a dot where they lived. And what was interesting is that it really started to get people to talk about where they live, and it broke down all these barriers when people were connecting. But for me, it created my first data visualization, and I was looking at it, and really thinking about, like, how far people go to get to that spot, and really what defines community, what defines your area, because I live farther away, but I have to travel farther to get to that spot. And so, my community is bigger than [inaudible 00:11:59] across the street. 

JS: Yeah. 

EB: So it was really interesting, and that really started me doing data visualization.

JS: Yeah. So then, I’m curious then, when it comes to your work now, what is the process like, I mean, so, like, there’s one on here that I was trying to dig into, it’s called what’s your number, and it looks like a pedestrian walkway, like an elevated pedestrian walkway for commuters.

EB: Yeah.

JS: Yeah. So when you are commissioned to do a work, does the client say, here’s the data we want you to use, or do they just say, we want something data – what is that process like? And then, I just want to know how you actually get up onto the bottom of this elevated walkway to do the work.

EB: Well, really it’s different every time, but I do feel really lucky that most of the time people come to me and say we want something, and then we discuss what that something is going to be. So usually, starting with a specific space, like, we want something for this space, yeah, and then, I’m able to kind of go from there. 

JS: So they say we have this huge, I don’t know, side of our building or area in our inside, and it’s this huge wall, why do they want data rather than just a piece of abstract art, like, what is that like, yeah?

EB: Well, a lot of people do just want a piece of abstract art or they want murals of people’s faces. It’s funny, I was telling a friend recently, I kind of stopped applying for things a few years ago, because I think that people have a very traditional idea of what a mural is. And so, unless I’m invited to something, it’s like, I don’t usually get it if I apply for some sort of mural, because if they don’t have this idea already about engaging community in this way or creating something that’s this abstract or this involved them. 

JS: Yeah. So, I guess, more about the process, I’m curious…

EB: Yeah.

JS: So, let’s say, you go in and you have this conversation, and, I don’t know, I guess, coming from the data side, I’m curious, do you go in and find some data, and then, do you – I’m guessing you do a whole bunch of sketches before you actually build something, and then, like, so how does… 

EB: Yeah. 

JS: Yeah, so what’s that data to final product? 

EB: Okay, so, I usually look at the space first, and sometimes the inspiration comes really fast in the space, and I can see it. You know, it can go two different ways. I don’t usually like when I see at first, because then I have to find the data to fit within this vision that I am seeing. So it’s much better for me, if I can just learn the limitations of the space. I’m very inspired by limitations. So I know that it has to be out of glass, or it has to be painted, and we have to take over the whole area, or, like, these are the goals or whatever that is. And then, lately, what I like the most is doing like a survey. So I’ll kind of talk with whoever’s paying for it, you know, like, what do we want to talk about, or if I am given free range, like, what – I did a project for Spotify that was really one of my favorite projects, and they really gave me free range, and I was able to just be inspired by the space. And I was really thinking a lot about color and sound, and so, I made a piece that tried to create a chromatic definition of sound. It was completely arbitrary and amazing. It was so much fun to make. 

So in that case, I created a framework for the data where I made a list of words that describe both color and sound. And then, I attributed a specific color to each word, and those colors came directly from their color deck. So all the colors that Spotify uses, so I was able to relate all of that. So one thing that’s really important to me is that the work really fits in the space that it’s in. So for that one, it was important to use kind of their color palette [inaudible 00:16:27] color palette, which was nice, because it really does match the space. So then I took those colors and those sounds and I ended up working with this guy, Glenn McDonald, who is like, they call him the data alchemist of Spotify. He is the one who creates the algorithms for the Discover Weekly. 

JS: Okay, all right. 

EB: [inaudible 00:16:46] obsessively. He’s super cool. So I got to work with him, and he’s working on this other project, where he is creating genre, sub genres, and I don’t know where it’s at now. But when we were working together, the genres were like, 3000-4000 different genres. So I worked with him to create a specific song that would go with each color. We started with genre, and then we picked a song, and we worked on a playlist together, and then, we sent it out to Spotify employees, where they then attributed the color to the word, and then, a color to the sound. So the visualization was basically, like, how many people agree with me.

JS: Right.

EB: [inaudible 00:17:31]. 

JS: Right, you crowdsourced the association.

EB: Yeah. So it was really, really interesting. And then, so I created the mural, ended up being on the ceiling, and then, it bent over onto the wall. So it kind of like, the axis went straight down the middle, and then, the sound data was on one side, and the word data was on the other. And so, it was super complicated, and I sometimes wonder, do people ever really get it. Like, I look back on them sometimes, and I’m even confused, and I made it. But I think there’s something interesting about that.

JS: Yeah. Well, it is interesting, back to your point about community, right, like, if you are a Spotify employee, and you got this survey, or whatever it was, every day you walk in to the office, and you see this mural, it reminds you, I mean, can remind you of that experience of this data collection. 

EB: Yeah, well, it’s yours. 

JS: Yeah. 

EB: And I think that that’s something I learned really early on, I was doing a teaching artist residency, and I was showing slides of this collaborative mural, I used to do collaborative murals with different organizations and stuff. And this girl was like, oh, I made that. And I was like, yeah, you did, like, that’s yours. And so, when someone paints a wall, it becomes theirs. When they’re involved in a project, it’s theirs. So I really love any opportunity that I can use this work to really bring people together. 

JS: It’s really interesting, there’s a whole discussion in the research world about trying to understand people, and having them own a bit of the research in terms of not on the science of it, but on the outcomes, right, that there’s a recommendation, and that’s how you really connect with people. But to data, I’m curious about how you think about sort of engagement and inspiration. I mean, obviously, your work is going to be different than someone working in a Excel dashboard or an R, you know, a map built in R. But do you think about your work as being inspiring or being engaging or telling stories, or it’s just all of those things sort of wrapped together? And it feels like it’s very like, you trying to make it personal for people who are viewing it?

EB: Yeah, I mean, I hope it’s all the things wrapped together. I hope that there is an experience, and I want the work to stand on its own, as being just something really beautiful and interesting to look at, and then there’s that second layer to it, of it really telling a story. Yeah, so I want it to be all of it. 

JS: Yeah. So I wanted to go back a little bit, so what is the in-between point, so, let’s say, the Spotify project, it’s kind of a perfect example, so you’ve actually collected all the data. 

EB: Yeah. 

JS: So then, before you go paint it on the wall, what is your process like – are you drawing a million different drafts, but are you working on the computer too, what is that process like? 

EB: Yeah, I mean, this is – so I’m not in – I have no background in mathematics or data, like, I was not a good student in school. So a lot of stuff sometimes, it’s like, everything is a little bit backwards I think. But I do start with like, a spreadsheet. My best friend’s like a whiz with Excel, so she’ll often help me sort things and do all the crazy Excel stuff, if I want to see something in a certain way, so she’ll help me clean up the data. But it’s difficult, because, if I have an idea, and I want to see something, it’ll take me eight hours to visualize and to create the system and I’m doing most of my stuff in Illustrator, but I’m doing it all, you know, I figured out all the math for how a unit of 10, like, what’s the size of each unit, and how am I going to upscale that. And then I’ll do something, and then, I’m like, oh, I hate it, you know. And then another one and another one. So the design process for me is pretty slow, it’s great when it happens fast, but it just, it doesn’t usually.

JS: Yeah. Have you ever worked through that process and gotten to the point where you were maybe satisfied with something, and then, realized it doesn’t quite work in the space? 

EB: Well, I think I’m always thinking about the space first. Well, that’s creating all my limitations, and that’s very important. All the work is made for that space that is… 

JS: Right.

EB: Yeah.

JS: Okay, so then, when it comes to putting in the final piece, this is like me having no idea how this works, for the Spotify piece, I have this vision of you like Michelangelo on the scaffolding, painting on the ceiling. Is that how it’s working? 

EB: Yeah. So that was my second ceiling piece, and I was like, I’m never doing this. But I did it again. Yeah, my friend Ali Meyer helped me, and we had scaffolding that was at six feet, and we stood on the scaffolding, and I think the most difficult – I’m going to say difficult, but it was also the most fun, I get really into the math, but in like A Beautiful Mind, sort of way. 

JS: Yeah. 

EB: I love getting, like, I just finished this piece in Morocco, I made a giant sundial, and I was like, for an entire week, I was just beautiful minding out, like, I was just like, and I had no idea what I’m doing. But it was, you know, the math on the Spotify piece was so complicated, and the measurements were so complicated. So I got one of those electric rulers that you could go to like them, because I do get really into the data, and it becomes super important that I just – you can’t fudge it, because if you fudge this one, then it’s all of that is off. And when I’m upscaling from a piece of paper to this, it’s like I can’t – I get really into it. But it’s often when I’m working with other people, because I often work with assistants or work with students, and I love when there’s the shift for everyone, where a color becomes a number, or we start speaking in this other language about making this piece, and so, that’s kind of, I don’t know, that’s like a little piece. 

JS: Yeah, that’s really interesting, yeah. I mean, the upscaling is really interesting too, right? When you’re in the digital world, like most data visualization folks are, you just change the number of pixels on the dashboard, and you just go, and you don’t have to really think about paper to wall.

EB: Yeah. 

JS: Or even desktop to mobile because the platform is going to kind of do it for you. 

EB: Yeah.

JS: So do you have a favorite medium to work with or work on? I mean, I imagine, the Spotify ceiling is like drywall, but then, you’ve got a lot of outdoor pieces that are presumably not. 

EB: Yeah.

JS: Do you have like a favorite that you like to work with? 

EB: No, I mean, I was painting mostly murals for a long time, and I think I’m really excited about kind of breaking out of that. And since breaking out of that, I just finished a project, a mural project, and I brought a friend on with the project, and I was like, man, I haven’t painted in so long. I mean, it felt – but there was something like I felt really good about it. Painting is really, it’s easy. I mean, like, it’s not easy-easy, but it’s a lot easier than stained glass or ceramic, or whatever else I’ve been up to. But yeah, I mean, I’m really happy to be breaking out of it, and learning new things. I mean, before last year, I didn’t know how to do caming with stained glass. I never worked in ceramics before, and then, I got to make these two huge pieces, so I’m pretty excited about that. 

JS: Yeah. The last thing I want to ask you about is color, you touched on it earlier. I mean, the one thing that really, I mean, literally jumps off the page, well, not literally, because that’d be scary, but really jumps off the page on your portfolio is you use a lot of bright color in your work. 

EB: Yeah.

JS: And I’m not sure I really have a well formed question on that, but just maybe it’s – what is your thought process when it comes to using color, because in the sort of digital DataViz world, it’s always a challenge, and color is so important when it comes to making your graphs, but what is your – again, I don’t really have a well formed question here, but what do you think about when you’re working on all these colors?

EB: Yeah, I think we touched on it a little bit, and I think that the color – I really want the pieces to belong to a space, so color is really important in that. I can spend a lot of time, like, a lot of time making a palette, but I also love to go to a space and pick up the color from that space. I did a project over the pandemic with the residents at Gouveneur Hospital, and it was really powerful, and they’re so proud about their neighborhood, and they weren’t able to leave the facility at all, so I went around and I took pictures, and then, brought them back, and then, we picked the palette from there. So it was taking the colors directly from the neighborhood, and color matching it. 

JS: And picked the colors with them. 

EB: Yeah. 

JS: Yeah. Okay, so I definitely see this theme of community and connections in all of your work. 

EB: Yeah, and so anytime, you know, I’ve been really lucky to do a handful of residencies. And so, when I go, you know, I’ll just go around and start collecting color from things that I find or things that I see. Usually, I do that through physical objects, which I think is really interesting to like paint chips, and so, that really informs the color as well. But sometimes it’s intuitive too – I remember I did this project in 2011, it was called Soundwaves, and the color palette was just pretty intuitive. And [inaudible 00:28:24] starting out too. So I just made the color palette. And then, I painted this huge, a 160-feet under the BQE, in Brooklyn, and I painted it, and then, I looked around, and I realized that that building was the same color as [inaudible 00:28:42] that building which showed up in the mural, and I was like okay, I just – I wish I would have paid more attention for it, that would be have been fun. But I’m glad that it just came in anyway, so it ended up like seamlessly fitting into that space, so that was lucky. 

JS: Yeah, that’s really cool, but it is a good reminder, I think to, again, back to the Tableau, Excel, D3 folks of the world, like, there are ways to pull colors not just randomly. 

EB: Yeah, well, I mean, I think that that’s – I mean, it’s a huge challenge in creating a palette like I did that series of visualized pie murals and sound projects. And with pie, it was difficult, because I would create a palette that every color needs to look good next to each color, no matter where it shows up. So really thinking about tone, and so, I use paint chips when I [inaudible 00:29:33] so I’ve collected paint chips from every paint company, I just go and collect one by one. But it’s nice, because I can kind of spread that all out, and I can move stuff around and make sure that it’s going to work. I mean, if I’m working with a set of data where I know exactly how things are going to show up, I can be much more controlled like the stained glass project. But that’s different too, because of glass which is so exciting and why I’m very excited about it with the color. But I don’t know what that piece is going to look like until the entire thing is installed. Like, this last piece that I did – cat on my lap. 

JS: We’re pro pet on the show. 

EB: But yeah, I mean, that was a huge project, and I’m looking – you see that palette is actually right there behind. So I could kind of see what it was going to look like, but you put it up and then there’s a tree behind it or it’s not sunny, and then, all the color changes. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and I think I really want to play with layering color with glass, cause that could be really interesting. 

JS: Yeah, and the color can change over the course of the day as the sun moves, yeah, that’s really interesting. You kind of have almost limited control, there’s the cat.

EB: It’s in front of the mic now.

JS: Yeah. Well, Ellie, this has been great. I’m big fan of the work, appreciate you coming on the show. And yeah, sharing all the process, and hopefully, folks can pull some out of this. For those who are more digitally minded, they can use some of this in their own work. 

EB: Yeah, well, if anybody wants to collaborate and teach me how to use the technical tools, we can do that. 

JS: Yeah, that’d be awesome, yeah, for those who are listening or watching, I put Ellie’s site and Instagram and email on the show notes so you can reach out if you want to be Ellie’s Excel go-to person. 

EB: Yeah. 

JS: Cool, Ellie, thanks so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it. 

EB: Thank you. 

Thanks to everyone for tuning into this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed that conversation, I really do. Hope you’ll check out Ellie’s website, check out some of her art, check out there’s some really great high resolution photographs over there of her different installations in her different projects. And I hope you’ll check out all the great things that she’s working on, on her Twitter feed as well. So thanks so much for tuning into this week’s episode of the show, lots going on, on the policyviz.com website from blogs and other podcasts and different resources, so please do check them out. And until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast, thanks so much for listening. 

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