I am a twister.
“I make balloon animals,” doesn’t cut it, you see. Right now you’re picturing dinky dogs and flowers and swords that you’ve seen at kids’ parties and carnivals.
Picture this instead: 40,000 balloons, mimicking the texture of wood on a sinking ship, the gnarled tangle of coral, the whirling tentacles of squid and the flashing fins of fish of all species. Picture balloons of every color and shape, stretching from floor to ceiling, five stories tall.
That’s what twisters can do.
A crew of about 60 twisters assembled here for four days last week. The resulting massive sculpture, known as Balloon Manor, is now on display as public art. You can see it in the Sibley Tower Building in downtown Rochester.
For a few more days, that is. Soon, it will be time to pop the whole thing.
But don’t think about that. For now, just gaze at the astounding profusion of balloons.
That coral reef is made of a few hundred pink heart-shaped balloons, twisted together four at a time and then tied together with uninflated balloons. Those two masts on the ship started as 420 individual six-inch-long balloons, tied end-to-end in circles of five and stacked about two stories high. Each tentacle of that gargantuan octopus is a complex braided strand of nine balloon threads, each one as thick as my arm.
I know these details because I had a hand in twisting all of those parts.
I’ve been a twister since I was 8 years old, when I first struggled in vain to inflate a balloon with a bicycle pump. I’ve been paid to make balloons at Friendly’s restaurants, at an Annapolis barbecue festival with 15,000 attendees, in a Parisian park, at every sort of celebration from a bat mitzvah to a football tailgate. I’ve built stuff like a 220-balloon replica of a Metro train, totally wearable dresses, a four-foot-tall model of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.”
So believe me when I say that working on Balloon Manor, under the direction of Larry Moss and his wife, Kelly Cheatle, is the ultimate experience a twister could have.
Simply put, the 44-year-old Moss is the best balloon artist in the world. And he has the world records to support this. Moss and Cheatle can name a couple other twisters whose balloon art might be on a similar scale but who work in very different styles. They mention Guido Verhoef of the Netherlands, who tends to use only round balloons, leading to works that are striking but lack the remarkable texture of Moss and Cheatle’s projects. Or Jason Hackenwerth, who takes the medium in a totally different direction by using balloons for abstract art.
Conduct the research and you could come to the informed conclusion that Moss is the best in the world at this particular form of art. Or you could just show up in Rochester, grab a pump and a handful of balloons, and listen to the stories twisters tell you as you inflate and tie side by side.
You’ll hear from Chrisie Pippen, who traveled from Australia for this. She was one of two twisters on this year’s team who came from outside of North America. Pippen knows the power of balloons. She handed them out in her mother’s nursing home. She watched her mother’s hands passing that inflated tulip back and forth, back and forth on her deathbed.
If you come to twist, Ihuoma Ekudu might ask you to hold her baby. Ekudu came to Balloon Manor 2014 when she was nine months pregnant. She twisted on the first day, then didn’t show up for day two — she was giving birth. She was back this year with Imara, now 1 year old and enchanted by the balloons her mother shaped in front of her stroller.
The balloon construction site is covered in splashes of color — green where a small knot of people is twisting turtles; blue where they’re inflating dozens of rounds that will become water; white where the temple of an undersea Atlantis is rising.
Each circle is somewhat like an old-fashioned quilting bee. Busy hands go well with chattering mouths. As work gets done, there’s time to swap stories. And everybody has one.
That includes Moss himself. He didn’t set out to become the world’s preeminent artist in a medium that destroys itself in a matter of days. He began as a high schooler bored on the New York City subway.
It started with card tricks. First to entertain himself, then to entertain fellow passengers, who started giving him their spare change. Moss paid for his math degree at the University of Rochester, he says, by working birthday parties and performing on the streets as a magician. That led to balloons.
He ended up creating Balloon HQ, an early Web site that formed a virtual community of balloon artists around the world. Before long, he was getting invited to build huge installations — samurai fighters in Japan, a record-setting soccer scene in Belgium. Even though he had a master’s degree in education, he devoted himself full time to balloons.
That was all before the Manor started. It has its own remarkable origin story.
In the story he used to tell on his Web site, Moss said his wife, Judy, fell into a coma in 2003 due to complications from cancer treatments. He talked to her constantly, desperately, in the terrifying hours of waiting for her to wake up. At one point, he promised that if she awoke, he would build her a castle out of balloons.
She did — and the only thing she remembered hearing, of all he had said, was that he would build her a house of balloons. So he did it. And that first castle, a haunted house, was the first Balloon Manor.
In the early years, that story was prominent, and the Manor charged admission to raise money for charities.
But as twisters know all too well, sometimes you dream up magnificent things and you build beautiful creations and then they deflate. Larry and Judy are divorced now. Moss doesn’t want to talk about the origins of Balloon Manor.
What he does talk about is the present — and the future.
Moss and Cheatle, 37, married in August; they had already been balloon collaborators for years. Most of the pair’s installations are made on their own or with the help of a few paid artists. What sets the Manor apart is the large unpaid crew; anyone could sign up to participate. But this year could be the last Manor.
After the haunted house years, first in 2004 and then each Halloween from 2006 to 2008, Moss stopped the annual event. He wasn’t selling enough tickets. One year, the charitable beneficiary, Teens Living with Cancer, invested heavily in promoting the event and actually lost money on the fundraiser. “You can’t imagine how bad I felt,” Moss said.
Moss and Cheatle brought Balloon Manor back in 2014, as a free work of public art in the five-story atrium of the Sibley Tower Building, down the road from their studio. It was enough of a success to do it again this year.
Moss decided to delegate some responsibilities this year. He agreed to let a local business handle the job of getting sponsorships for him; that business failed to bring in a single paying sponsor. He was left only with in-kind donations such as the balloons, from the Qualatex company, and the food for the crew’s lunches.
So he lost a significant amount of money. “I’m underwater,” he said, standing just outside the atrium where the inflatable sea scene would rise into the air. “Literally.”
To run the Manor again, he will need sponsors. But he has high hopes for its future, and he dreams of investors backing even bigger projects.
Moss and Cheatle bring up some very big names when they talk about their Airigami studio. They mention Jim Henson. Disney. Pixar. Creators of commercial entertainment, undeniably for the masses and undeniably art.
“That’s the dream. That’s the passion. To build this studio that creates amazing things that the world recognizes,” Moss said.
Right now, that means building an installation somewhere in the world roughly once a month, for which the hosts pay between $20,000 and $100,000, Moss said.
Someday he’d like to take Balloon Manor on the road. He’d like to do an installation in a Smithsonian museum in Washington. He’d like to create an animated movie out of balloons.
That all these lofty ambitions are grounded in a medium that is little more than captured air does not bother Moss. In fact, he celebrates it — members of the public can pay $10 to participate in the “popping party” on Sunday.
And no one else at Balloon Manor seems troubled that their hard work of four days — and it is hard work; each new method of twisting or tying, repeated over and over, causes new fingers to hurt in new ways — will all be popped.
“I’m creating a memory. And to me, that memory is more important,” Moss said. Since no one can come back to see the sculpture, his viewers tend to recall only the impact of the piece, the astonishment they felt when they first saw the balloons before their eyes.
This is a place where we’re all obsessed with shape and color and intoxicated by the abundance of both within reach of our fingers. Marsha Gallagher, participating in her fourth Balloon Manor, reminisced with New York state twister Tim Henshaw about the first piece they built together at a long-ago haunted house Manor. She remembered their meeting by the balloons in their hands — “metallic green 11-inch rounds,” she said nostalgically. Gallagher, from Annandale, Va., was there with her husband, TJ Michael, also a skilled twister. She has been twisting since 1976.
Her daughters have lived and breathed balloons their entire lives. Now 27 and 29, Tracy and Julie Michael traveled from their homes in Brooklyn and Peekskill, N.Y., to make Balloon Manor a family reunion.
Cheatle, the lead designer of the entire sculpture, entrusted the family with a rare piece of the installation that did not come with a precise blueprint. “Build a shark. It should go from about me to the wall,” were Cheatle’s instructions.
It was fascinating to watch the Michael family work together. This is a family that speaks balloon as if it is their native language. TJ twisted two balloons in half, then twisted the two pairs together. It looked like nothing yet to me. Julie, his older daughter, watched him intently. “Oh, I get it,” she said.
The Michael sisters recall afternoons when they were about 6 and 8 years old, and their mother would toss them a bag of 100 balloons to keep them occupied. They could build themselves a playhouse out of balloons.
And that, in essence, is what we did at Balloon Manor. We played on a giant, adult-size playground covered in broken scraps of latex of every color of the rainbow.
Every time we reached out our hands, we found another balloon, and another, and another. For a few short days, we could constantly feed our shared love for these malleable, challenging, entrancing, painful, noisy, joyful toys.
“A lot of art nowadays is very highbrow, abstract,” Cheatle said one night, as she manipulated one balloon out of 40,000. “There’s room for fun. There’s room for levity.”