Mural artists’ big pictures are all about the tiny details

William Motchan
Ellie Balk with the mural she created at the Chroma Apartments complex in the Grove. Photo:Bill Motchan

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

When we look at art, our retinas can actually see the photons bouncing off it, according to neuroscientists. We often associate the images with memories. It’s not unlike the emotions we experience hearing familiar music.

For the artists who create the work, there are all kinds of other emotions. Artists love the creative process, putting pen to paper and brush to canvas. Most of all, though, they want their work to be seen and experienced.

Those artists who specialize in large public murals needn’t worry about an audience experiencing their work. Especially in heavily traveled areas, the murals may be viewed hundreds of times a day. Murals are also especially challenging to paint because of the large scale. Of course, that also makes them awe-inspiring for the viewer.

Several nationally recognized Jewish muralists call St. Louis home. The Jewish Light caught up with Ellie Balk, Jacob Berkowitz and Edo Rosenblith to see them in action.

Mathematics visualized

Most of us look at a column of numbers and we see just that: numbers. Ellie Balk sees colors and shapes. Balk, 42, is a noted muralist who often uses mathematics as a starting point. Her murals are precise geometric designs, but they are far from random. There is a message and an interpretation of statistical trends.

A good example is a mural she recently completed at the Chroma Apartments complex at 4041 Chouteau Ave. and Sarah Street in the Grove. A series of 12 interconnected colorful circles each bear the name of a city.

“Everything is laid out geographically,” Balk explained as she stood literally in the middle of her work. “St. Louis is in the center. I chose 12 river cities that are experiencing a boom in technology right now, and St. Louis is one of those. I wanted to take a snapshot of the population and the size of the diameter of each one of the circles is based on the current population in those cities.”

The largest circle is San Jose, Calif., and the others, including Portland, Ore.,  Austin, Texas and Omaha, Neb., are represented by circles of varying size. Inside the circles are smaller pie-chart segments that illustrate the population decline and growth in each decade from 1900 to the present. 

“It’s an interesting comparison with the percentage of growth in each of these cities,” Balk said. “You can start to see the patterns in the river cities, and you can see the growth up until the 1960s, then the decline as people moved out of the cities, like in Detroit, Minneapolis and Chattanooga (Tenn.), but now we’re seeing this boom related to technology, which is really interesting.”

The work, painted directly on pavement, was a challenging one for Balk. Generally, she paints on a wall. 

The Chouteau Avenue project was commissioned by the Koman Group, which co-developed the Chroma Apartments with Green Street St. Louis. Balk’s “River Cities Population Timeline” fit in perfectly with the client’s vision, according to Maggie St. Geme, marketing director for the Koman Group.

“Chroma is one of our newer developments, and it’s situated on this really interesting corner, this connecting point between the Grove and Cortex,” St. Geme said. “Ellie was appealing because of the additional component of her work. On the surface, the mural looks really fun with colorful pieces, but it has that data visualization and underlying meaning. We began the process by talking to her about different ideas on what data she might use and what that visualization would look like. It was a fun process. Ellie is really clever, and she worked really hard on the data piece.”

Balk is passionate about both math and data-driven public art. She pores through statistics when she begins a project, then finds a way to visualize it with colors and shapes. At first glance, it appears to be abstract shapes and colors, until you take a closer look. There is always a message in her work. She is communicating to the viewer significant trends that affect us, whether they are population growth or the impact of technology.

Balk grew up in Creve Coeur, graduated from Parkway North High School and attended United Hebrew Congregation. She wasn’t doodling in a notebook during her teen years. Nor was she then or now an expert in math. It wasn’t until she started college that art took shape as her career path. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in fine art from Pratt Institute.

“I took a long road to finishing college,” she said. “I didn’t start painting until I was in my 20s. I came to everything backward. When I was in school, I thought I wanted to be an art therapist, and I ended up in Ohio studying art history, but the program folded, and I had already taken my foundation art classes.

“I noticed that my ideas were different than other people’s, and I was thinking outside the box, like I was really into these two-dimensional structures. I started reading a lot of philosophy and was really inspired by Walter Benjamin and his theories on art and the evolution of human perception.”

As Balk began creating art based on formulas and numbers, she discovered she’d need to relearn skills she hadn’t used since high school. 

She already had a vision and creative process, so the art came naturally. Her work is striking in its relevance but deceptively simple in its execution. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute. 

Like many muralists, she begins by sketching an illustration on her computer. For large wall murals, she sometimes projects the sketched image on a wall, then begins the slow, methodical process of tracing and painting.

Among Balk’s public art projects is a colorful map at Terminal 2 baggage claim at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Another recently completed project is the “Sister Cities: Cortex Mural Series” at the Cortex Innovation Community, 4320 Forest Park Ave. That mural depicts the population growth of St. Louis and its 16 sister cities around the globe.

“It was really interesting to be involved in the Cortex project, with five murals all with the same concept,” she said. “It was a big project, too, and it was an honor to be able to do it.”

The space tells you what it needs

Artists find inspiration from any number of stimuli. Muralist Jacob Elior Berkowitz finds his muse from the space he’s working in. It’s not unusual for him to spend a few days just sitting with a blank wall, waiting for it to tell him what it needs.

“Everything I do is site-reactive or site-responsive,” said Berkowitz, 26. “All the things I see in the space influence the work and play a part in it.”

Berkowitz’s influences include the famous architect and philosopher Louis Kahn, who felt a space would speak to what it needed if the artist listened. 

“Desire is the creation of a new need,” Kahn once said.

Another architect who had an impact on Berkowitz was his father, Alan, who specialized in renovations and historic restoration for more than 28 years. The elder Berkowitz was adept at industrial design and often sketched furniture.

“When I was younger, I was drawing furniture because my dad did that,” Jacob said. “And I remember he was always drawing these really funky alphabets, turning letters into other objects.”

Jacob still carries a sketchbook and is often trying out new typefaces.

“Calligraphy is really at the root of my work,” he said. “My letters have always been very symmetrical. I try to create a balanced composition.”

That sense of balance is present in all of Berkowitz’s murals. He uses bold, wide brushstrokes that demand attention of the viewer. His “Tensions Became Landscapes to Traverse #2” is a 20-foot-wide, three-dimensional work that serves as the focal point on the east wall of the St. Louis Fashion Incubator on Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis.

“It gets a lot of attention from people who come in here,” said Erin Vlasaty, development manager for the St. Louis Fashion Fund.

Equally dramatic is a lesser-known Berkowitz work, “No, I Wasn’t Looking For Anything,” which is a 30-foot-wide mural on a wall of a private residence on Cherokee Street. It was a typical Berkowitz work because he spent a few days just absorbing the space before he picked up a brush.

Actually, it was more than just a brush. Berkowitz used a variety of materials, including latex, gouache, molding paste, chalk and a wax pencil. The technique and resulting final product are reminiscent of the legendary Robert Rauschenberg. Amazingly, Berkowitz completed the entire mural in just three weeks.

It’s not surprising that Berkowitz, a Clayton native, found his calling as an artist at an early age. His paternal grandmother was an expert at needlepoint, and his maternal grandmother was an interior decorator. His mother is a textile artist, and his older brother is an artist specializing in pastels and watercolor.

“My parents are both big admirers of the arts, and we were taught to express ourselves with art,” he said.

When Berkowitz turned 18, he found a support community in the form of a collective of artists. They were all older than him, and they took him under their wing, serving as mentors.

“I really became an artist under their presence,” he said. “They gave me the space and dialog to paint together collaboratively, and I learned so much from that process.”

One goal is to pass along some of his knowledge and pay it forward. Berkowitz has already experienced some of that via a 2016 trip to Europe, where he led a mural teaching program in Kaunas, Lithuania, for a group of 7- to 13-year-olds from a neighborhood day care center.

That was a fulfilling experience, Berkowitz said, as is the ability as an artist to unleash your power.

“It’s a privilege to feel like you have agency to manipulate the world around you,” he said. “Getting to work on projects like this is unleashing a creative focus.” 

Poetry reflected in images

There’s no mistaking visual artist Edo Rosenblith when he’s creating a project. Rosenblith, 31, generally works in monochrome. His murals are intricate, surreal designs a viewer could look at for hours and find additional hidden details. There’s also the artist’s distinctive white paint-stained smock with a not-too-subtle monogram. On the back, stitched in big block letters, it reads: HI I’M EDO.

Rosenblith is an approachable artist. That goes beyond the greeting he wears. He welcomes viewers of art to experience his work, including while it’s in progress. That is part of the goal of the project he was working on in June and July at the project+gallery at 4733 McPherson Ave. in the Central West End. The gallery and its artists encourage visitors to watch the murals come to life.

“For a lot of artists, the art production is done behind closed doors, they don’t want audiences to see the process,” Rosenblith said. “I like the idea of collapsing the studio space and the exhibit space to demystify the process.”

The project+gallery exhibit, “SPF 1991,” evokes memories of summers past. Rosenblith’s mural is a visual funhouse of emotions, incorporating everything from joys to fears. The work takes a bit of time to absorb, and it’s equally hard to look away from it. That is kind of the point of creating art, Rosenblith said. Ideally, the viewer should experience an emotional reaction. If you look at it and laugh out loud, that’s great, because Rosenblith amused himself when he created it.

Rosenblith joined two other artists in creating images for “A Summer Vacation.” His was inspired largely by the poetry of Paul Legault, with whom Rosenblith previously created a book.

“A literary text is a good way to get the gears going,” Rosenblith said. “These images are visual responses to his work. Sometimes I incorporate the whole poem, and sometimes I just use certain words.”

The Rosenblith home was filled with art when Edo grew up. Most of that was work done by his father, Zohar. Edo was born in Israel, as was Zohar, who moved to the United States with his sons and wife, Betty Berger. They eventually settled in St. Louis, where Zohar followed the Rosenblith family tradition as a shoe designer. Edo showed promise as an artist when he was just 5 years old, so he was encouraged by his parents.

After graduated from Parkway Central High School, Rosenblith earned a bachelor’s degree in painting in 2011 at the Rhode Island School of Design and a master’s in visual art at Washington University in 2017. He was the winner of the Cite Residency Artist Grant from Wash U, and he has received grants from prestigious organizations including the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

His work has been shown in galleries around the world, but St. Louis remains home base, and Rosenblith has already completed 12 major murals here. One of those is in a shared workspace at TechArtista, 4818 Washington Blvd., where his murals mirror the creativity and collaboration of the tenants, according to Christopher Holt, CEO and co-founder.

“There are other artists who do murals, but not many who do work like Edo,” Holt said. “We can trust him to do it and do it really well. The first mural he did for us, we had a general concept of what we wanted to invoke, but a great artist like Edo comes up with the right execution. We are very big fans of his, as both an artist and as a person, he’s a great person.”

The TechArtista team loved Rosenblith’s earlier work, so he was the natural choice for another project, which he’s working on when not completing the project+gallery mural. This one is especially challenging. The mural is on one side of a pyramid precariously placed high in the center of the TechArtista building.

“When we were looking to have somebody do the pyramid, I said, ‘Edo, we can’t pick you for this because we already have so much of your work,’ ” Holt said. “But Edo’s submission was by far the most well thought out. It came with a two-page thesis behind what his concept was. He plans it all out. I don’t know how it works, but it’s pretty amazing.”