The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A balloon artist’s spectacular last sculpture: ‘You ever want to know how much you’re loved? Die young.’

Deborah Fellman laughs while talking with fellow balloon twisters at her final balloon build. (Tim Wright for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — It’s just past midnight, and my friend Debs beckons me to come into her lamp-lit hotel room and sit down on the bed. She’s telling two of our fellow balloon artists about a wacky new design she saw.

“He made these reindeer blasters,” she says. “Oh, we were dying!”

We freeze. And then Debs says, “Well, me literally.”

The silence breaks, and we laugh and laugh and laugh.

Deborah Fellman, balloon artist extraordinaire, is 54 and dying. And she’s ending her life the way she spent so much of it — creating smiles.

This weekend, she gave a gift of joy to the city of Richmond: a wonderland of blossoming tulips and hyacinths and daffodils, of birds and frogs and butterflies, of cascading water and tumbling clouds and soaring glass … all made entirely out of balloons.

Twenty thousand balloons’ worth of awe and delight, a gift from Debs to the city she loves. And a gift from all of us to Debs.

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Fifty balloon twisters came to Richmond this weekend to honor Debs, flocking from near and far to participate in creating Debs’s final installation. We’re a tightknit community, balloon artists — these off-kilter people who don’t just twist dogs and swords but massive sculptures of breathtaking complexity in a medium that’s destined to pop in a matter of days. All of us met Debs at previous balloon builds and conventions and jams around the country. And when we heard about her final build, we all knew that we couldn’t miss it.

Debs got sick suddenly. One day in November, she was a community fixture, a doting aunt, a savvy proprietor of a growing business. The next, a physician was telling her that she might not live until Christmas.

When I talked with her a few days after she shared the news of her diagnosis of Stage 4 endometrial cancer, she was surrounded by cards, with stacks more arriving in the mail every day. “I’ll tell you this. You ever want to know how much you’re loved? Die young,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I recommend it.”

Debs started making balloons more than 15 years ago, when she happened upon an instruction manual. What was at first a way of entertaining her nephews became a job later, when she had just bought a house. A huge storm hit, flooding her new home, and she didn’t have the money to replace the furnace. Balloon twisting in restaurants brought in enough extra cash that she could pay her mortgage and keep the heat on.

Eventually, she left her job as a compliance officer. She could make more money, she realized, making balloon art full time.

She decorated glitzy parties and upscale corporate events with her balloons; she worked as a balloon artist for Coca-Cola and Walmart. Yet she still felt she paled in comparison with the most famous sculptors in this highly temporary latex art form.

“I always wanted to be Larry Moss. I always wanted to be Guido. I always wanted to be one of those big names that do big stuff,” she said to me that day in November, soon after her diagnosis. “It has really been an epiphany to realize that what matters the most to people is the little stuff. I really feel embarrassed I didn’t get that earlier. I wish I’d been a little less hard on myself.”

With difficulty, she got up and crossed the room to read from her stack of cards. “This comes from a family I don’t even know: ‘Please know that you will be remembered as an artist with a loving heart. You are greatly loved,’” she read.

Weeping, she read the next: “I love watching you work. You are a true artist. You made the Fourth of July parade so special and you’ve done so much more for our community.”

In Richmond, Debs’s art has been a fixture of so many celebrations, now remembered on so many greeting cards. “‘Be proud of all the good you have done and your generosity to our community,’” she read. “How can I read this and not cry? I didn’t know. And I feel so stupid for ever having beaten myself up for not being as brilliant as Phileas Flash or Dustin Queary or any of the people.”

At Debs’s build this weekend, Queary was there, making exceptionally detailed animals. Moss was there, helping construct a two-story-tall model of the Lewis Ginter Conservatory, a Richmond-area fixture that Debs loves. Artists who traveled from Seattle and Los Angeles, Tennessee and Texas, Ireland and Canada all collaborated to fill the atrium of the Regency Square Mall with balloon sculptures, creating a walk-through garden in front of the towering balloon Conservatory.

Debs’s mother and sister have been amazed by the outpouring of affection from the balloon community.

Laura Jones, Debs’s sister, said her faith has helped her through these difficult months she has spent as Debs’s caregiver. And she saw evidence of God’s plan in this gathering. “That is what Jesus wants us to do, to hold each other up,” Jones said. “This is fellowship. It’s not in a church. You can have fellowship with anyone, anywhere, when you put an arm around someone and tell them how much they mean to you.”

She gestured at the balloon trees, planted in balloon grass, surrounded by balloon flowers and creatures, with balloon clouds drifting above.

The sculpture will be up in the mall for a week, so anyone in Richmond can come experience it. Step inside, and it’s like walking through a fairyland.

When it was all finished, after two long days of nonstop twisting, I found myself wandering through it alongside Andrea Noel, the balloon artist (and Wisconsin physician) who took on the yeoman’s task of organizing the whole big project. We met at the end, wordlessly put our arms around each other, and cried.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Andrea whispered.

Debs had been resting in a quiet room in the mall while we finished putting all the pieces together. Twisters brought her out in her wheelchair, covering her eyes. All 50 of us gathered around her.

What gift can you give to a friend who is dying? How can you say goodbye?

Andrea spoke for all of us: “You can see what we made for you, because we love you.” And Debs took in the vision: a dazzling multitude of balloons, spending their brief time on Earth offering up such joy.