Teaching artist Ellie Balk's work centers on mathematics and data visualization.  As a leader in the field of arts education, she focuses her work on curriculum integrated school beautification projects. She has worked with more than 3,500 students in 40 schools and institutions across the nation, and pursues independent projects through numerous grants and partnerships with community organizations.

When Balk moved back to her hometown of St. Louis from New York in 2014, she knew she wanted to continue creating public art through core curriculum with a focus on mathematics. When she learned that Springboard (an A&E grantee) offers partnerships to artists who specialize in creative ways to teach the arts, sciences and/or humanities, she quickly got involved.

Currently, Balk is working with students at two St. Louis Public Schools in partnership with Springboard. At Ford Elementary School in North St. Louis, she is working with sixth graders on a legacy project for Springboard to use in its upcoming 50th anniversary celebration. The project is based on influential African-Americans with St. Louis connections.

“We’re doing a reverse glass painting technique that I learned from a West African artist,” explains Balk. “In reverse glass painting you have to think backwards. So, you do your line work first and then you paint on top of it.

“I taught them a little about light and shadow and color theory - how to make (the color) brown. It’s not easy. I challenged them to make different shades of brown, to essentially make their own skin color, which is very difficult and they really got it. They knew if it was too red, they’d have to add a little bit of green, or too blue, to add a little orange. It was really cool.”

At the city’s Carnahan High School, she is working with math classes in algebra and geometry, focusing on perspective.

“They are creating compositions using two-point perspective,” she says. “We’re at the stage now where we’ve drawn compositions on the board and we will cut the boards out and then paint them.”

Balk explains that this project complements the students learning about geometry and properties of angles. “We’re using the drawings to help teach the math. At least that’s our intention,” she adds.

Balk teaches at Carnahan once a week and Ford twice a week through the length of each project, which run roughly 10 weeks.

After earning her bachelor’s of fine arts in painting in 2002 at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Balk moved to the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.  She graduated with a master’s of fine arts in painting from Pratt Institute in 2005, and lived and worked in Brooklyn for 12 years before moving back to St. Louis.

Balk is continuing her work as a community organizer here through a partnership with the Cherokee Street Development League. She says getting young people involved with public art and beautification projects in their communities is key to empowering them.

“I’m really passionate about bringing students outside school and into the community to do public art,” said Balk. “I work a lot on Cherokee Street and it is a tricky neighborhood. I think one way the problems could be addressed is with the kids’ voices. If we could help them create a public mural and be part of the process, then we could have a starting point. Right now these kids might not feel like they have a voice in this growing community.”

Balk’s mural and public artwork can be seen on her website: elliebalk.com. Most projects on the site have been created with high school students through partnerships with a school.

Springboard is an A&E grantee. For more information, visit springboardstl.org