At Carol Balick’s house, a tribe of figurines from Kenya camps on the mantel of the living room fireplace. Hand-thrown pots from the Amazon rain forest are at home on the sideboard in the dining room. The gracefully curved baskets that stand atop a bookcase were woven by Native Americans.
Balick, an artist and longtime collector, surrounds herself with folk art and other creative expressions from around the globe.
“Even our bathrooms are filled with art,” she says. “Tribal areas all over the world are of great interest to me.”
Balick grew up in a home decorated with the French-inspired furnishings her mother admired. That wasn’t her style, but she didn’t develop her own aesthetic until she took a trip to Mexico after graduating Syracuse University with a degree in art. She was captivated by the bright colors and earthy vibe of the artisans’ handiwork.
“I was brought up in Brooklyn and never saw people making folk art,” she says. “I found it magical.”
Soon, she was swooning over pieces crafted by Native Americans that she discovered in Santa Fe, N.M. She saw beauty in humble household items, she says while marveling at a spoon handcrafted from wood.
“Sweaty palms. Weak in the knees. Totally smitten.”
Balick and her husband, Sid, moved into a stone ranch-style home in Wilmington’s Brandywine Hills neighborhood in the 1960s. From the very beginning, they put their own twist on tradition, weaving an ever-expanding collection of art into the mix.
“Ultimately, this is our home, where we hang out,” she says. “It’s very livable.”
Cozy, ruby red sofas ground a conversation area in the living room. A blaze crackles in the fireplace on most winter evenings. The furnishings reflect the international scope of the art—a multicolored painted chest from Morocco, a rustic wood coffee table from India, an antique settee from England, a woven rug from Afghanistan.
Balick’s love of art also has propelled her professional life. She is both a gifted painter and a dealer. She and partners Judy McCabe and Fred Carspecken founded Artisans III, an important presence in the vibrant art scene that flourished in the city in the 1970s and 1980s.
Artisans III closed in 2001, but Balick is still in the art business. Twice a year she invites patrons to her home to browse and buy selected pieces.
She originally intended to sell the tall, sculptural figure of a Dengesse man, made in the Congo, that has stood in the dining room for years.
“I bought him for the shop,” she recalls. “Then I said, ‘Come home with me.’”
The sculptural figure of a Dengesse man (left of the window) has stood in the dining room for years.
Balick also enjoys collecting the work of other painters. An oil rendering of flowers on a windowsill by Delaware’s own Ed Loper hangs in the kitchen. An exuberant floral interpretation by Gus Sermas of Centreville is mounted floor to ceiling in the dining room.
“Big, bold, gorgeous, exciting flowers,” she says.
Balick is still drinking from the artisan-made glasses she brought back from Mexico in 1957. She sets the dining room table with various goblets she has collected over the years.
“None of them match, all the sizes are different and some lean a little bit because they were all made by hand,” she says.
The figurines on the mantel were crafted from red clay by members of the Turkana tribe in Kenya. They include diverse interpretations of nomadic life, including a rhinoceros, an elephant and a woman with an infant in her arms.
From left: Even the area around the spiral staircase serves as a gallery; many items Balick collects are the handiwork of unsung artists.
In the master bath, a terra cotta figurine of an angel, made in Mexico in the 1950s, floats on the wall. Brass towel hooks, each one unique, were forged in Ghana. She bought retablo from Peru—diorama-like boxes of figures depicting everyday life—for her grandchildren. One retablo depicts a Latin American hat shop. The tiny figurines were molded from potato flour.
“You can fit everything you love into a space that is aesthetically nourishing,” she says. “You can put disparate things together and they work beautifully.”
Many of the pieces she has collected serve a specific function in tribal culture. Zulu baskets, with chevrons and diamonds woven into the design, are used to ferment beer. A wedding basket crafted in Zaire has been patched many times over the years. The grasses and reeds used in the repair become part of the design.
In the kitchen, a large, square basket woven in Indonesia is a utilitarian piece as well as an artistic statement.
“I keep Trader Joe’s bags in it for recycling,” she says.
She took out a closet to create a display niche for a collection of santos, painted figures of saints made in Latin America, “so much nicer than a pantry.”
Many of the items Balick collects are the handiwork of unsung artists, many of them women, who did not sign their pieces.
“The really old pieces were made for communal use, not as art,” she says. “There’s an honesty about it, a spiritual connection that is part of tribal history and respect.”
In shopping for her gallery, Balick traveled to artisans in South America, European flea markets, the American West and beyond. She found the large blue-and-white ceramic bowl displayed on top of a cupboard in her kitchen during a trip to Greece.
“I carried it back on my lap on the plane, back in the day when you were allowed to do such things,” she says.
After a half century of collecting, she can attest that you never know where you will find art that elevates a home from a shelter to a sanctuary. She has discovered ethnic art at yard sales. She spied a set of fluted art glass bowls in the window of a Latin American beauty salon.
The masks displayed on shelves in the den were carved from the scapula bone of a cow. A collection of ceremonial masks offers perspectives from Africa, Mexico, New Guinea and the Philippines. Wooden dolls were crafted in the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Panama.
“The wood is believed to have healing powers, so they are interested in handling it when they are sick,” she says. “I picked one up and my hand felt hot. Then someone else picked one up and felt pins and needles.”
After years of collecting, Balick’s thrill at finding art that is new and exciting remains undiminished. There is always room for more.
“If I love it, if it’s marvelous, I’ll take it home,” she says. “I can’t stop treasure hunting.”
Choose furniture that is art in itself. In the Balick home, that includes a brightly colored painted chest from Morocco and a low, wood table from India. Integrate art into your daily life. A large basket from Indonesia is ideal for recycling. A brass dish from India is a distinctive soap dish. Shop the world. Traveling offers a unique opportunity to discover art made by indigenous people. Take a global perspective in decorating. Diverse art from around the world can exist in complete harmony. If you love it, find a place for it. Sell, swap or give away pieces that no longer resonate with you. Make room for something new.