For years people have been finding new and innovative ways to create masterful works of art. Donatello used marble and bronze to sculpt impeccable sculptures of biblical characters during the 1400s – fast forward over 600 years and Donald Tran is sculpting mind blowing pop culture characters out of, what else? BALLOONS! Though inflatable rubber toys may seem like an unlikely medium, Tran is redefining the way people think of balloon-based art, one creative twist at a time.
We recently floated over to Tran’s workshop to talk magic, Marvel-elous characters, and the super-related power that artwork can have on its audience.
TrunkSpace: Through the wonders of social media, we stumbled upon your Instagram and we were completely blown away by what we saw! It appears you are redefining balloon art and what is really possible in the medium. You’re not just making a balloon sword, you’re creating complete works of art. How did you find yourself drawn to balloon sculpting and how many years has it taken you to get to the level you’re at?
Tran: I started twisting balloons around 12 to 13 years ago. I bumped into a magician at a street festival giving away balloon swords and flowers, and it immediately caught my attention. I became good friends with him, and we’re still pretty close today. (Shout out to Alfonso!) I was a naïve and arrogant magician when we met, but he took me under his wing and even gave me my first real bag of twisting balloons. In other words, he gave me high quality balloons that didn’t pop easily like the ones you’d find at a dollar store. The good balloons kept me motivated and it allowed me to create more intricate sculptures without them bursting as often. I played with LEGO bricks a lot growing up, and balloon twisting gave me the chance to practice my creativity again. The progress was slow, but I would continue to make smaller things for several years. It wasn’t until around 2013 or 2014 that I got much better at balloon twisting, and I can thank my fellow balloon artist friends for that as well as many a balloon art tutorial found online. When I eventually met and befriended other twisters, they were showing me designs, techniques, and other things with balloons that I didn’t even know existed. Seeing what others were making inspired me to learn even more.
TrunkSpace: We also saw on your Facebook page that you’re not only a master balloon artist, but you’re also working on becoming a master magician. Do you combine the balloon art and magic together? It certainly seems like you would have to be a magician to craft some of the sculptures that you do!
Tran: Maybe there is a way to combine the two, but I like to keep them separate because they’re both very different art forms in my opinion. So no, you don’t have to be a good magician to be a good balloon twister. Magic is a performing art and balloon twisting wouldn’t exactly work without a crowd. As a magician, I am performing for people and not for the man in the mirror. Balloon twisting on the other hand is more of a visual art, and I don’t necessarily have to rely on good social skills or cheesy jokes to do it. Also with balloons, I don’t have to do it live in front of an audience; I can be anywhere by myself doing it. When I’m out twisting balloons for people, I only get a few minutes with each guest. When I’m at home though, I have the freedom to spend as much time as I need to sculpt the bigger pieces you see on my Facebook and Instagram. Because I don’t have that luxury when I’m at a party, my most intricate balloons usually only get seen online. On special occasions though like when I go to Comic Con for fun, I’ll bring a few fancy balloons with me. I’ll turn them into balloon hats, and a few of my friends will be goofballs and wear them around with me. But sorry, I digressed. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: What is it that drives you to entertain and delight others through your work? Do you find magic or balloons to be more rewarding? Or do you get the same sort of satisfaction from both?
Tran: Magic and balloon twisting are both very rewarding, but in different ways. When I saw my first magic trick as a kid, I was filled with delight, doubt, and wonder all at the same time. I don’t think there are many art forms out there that can make a person feel that way all at once. That indescribable and innocent childhood-like feeling people get when they see a good trick is why I love magic, and it’s that feeling that I hope to instill in others every time I perform. Nowadays you can find the answers to almost anything at the push of a button. In a world where mystery has become increasingly rare, it’s really rewarding when I perform magic and can get people to question what they just experienced. Magic is also really universal in that it doesn’t matter the age, the ethnicity, the gender, or even if the same language is spoken. It has a way of uniting people to see something wonderful together. It’s satisfying knowing that I can do that with just a bit of sleight of hand. Bringing people together is the real magic for me.
Balloon art allows me to express myself in ways I normally can’t with words. On top of that, it keeps the creative juices flowing because there’s so much I still want to make. Another thing that makes balloon twisting so gratifying is the responses I get from people that appreciate the work. I’m thankful that adults can find beauty and joy in balloon art, but it’s the responses that I’ll get from kids that gives me the fuzzies. Seeing their faces glow after I give them something that I crafted makes me really happy. I’ll sometimes run into the same kids at different parties and they’ll tell me all about how they still have their shriveled up balloon months later.
TrunkSpace: Do you have a favorite subject matter to build in balloons? We were geeking out over your “Ash Vs. Dead” and “Little Shop of Horrors” creations. Are you a fellow geek at heart?
Tran: Glad you enjoyed the “Ash vs Evil Dead” balloons! I’m a big fan of the series and with horror in general, especially with old school slasher films. I have to admit though, I haven’t seen every single scary movie out there, but there’s something so interesting about the genre that makes me always come back to it when I’m thinking of new stuff to make. Ghost, goblins and other movie monsters all look so interesting, unique, and grotesque. That makes them the most challenging but also the most fun to build. I love and will never stop making balloon cartoon characters, princesses, and other cute animals, but people have seen all of that already. It’s not often that they’ll see a bloody headless zombie (*ahem* pardon me, “deadite”) or creatures with razor sharp teeth made up of squishy colorful balloons. When I’m not making frightening things, I enjoy making sci-fi characters or superheroes especially from Marvel comics. Actually, I’m currently working on as many Marvel characters as I can right now in order to celebrate the release of the upcoming Infinity War movie.
TrunkSpace: You attended the World Balloon Convention this year. For those of us that didn’t know there was such an event, what was that experience like? What does one expect to see at a convention for balloons?
Tran: That was like less than two weeks ago! Would you believe that it was my first balloon convention? It was everything I was hoping it would be, and more. I follow many balloon twisters on Instagram, so it was really fun getting to meet some of them for the first time. I must admit though, I felt like an amateur twister all over again after marveling at the stuff these guys were creating. People from all over the world attended, and they all take their crafts very seriously. There was a competition in different categories held at the convention, and every balloon submitted was breathtaking. From larger than life sculptures to smaller tabletop bouquets, there was a contest for everything. One of my favorite categories was the fashion/costume contest. There was this beautiful and WEARABLE blue gown made entirely out of balloons, and it was definitely one of my favorites. I was fortunate enough to speak to the artist that made it, and apparently it took her four days to complete it! And yet here I am complaining about spending just a few hours on a project.
TrunkSpace: Is the balloon art community a tight-knit group? Do you all get inspired by one another’s creations and push each other to see how far you can go with the craft?
Tran: Yeah, it’s a pretty tight-knit community. People are always coming up with new and innovative ideas though, which can make it pretty competitive at times. We all want to be credited for coming out with the next big thing, and so for that reason, we might keep a method or two to ourselves. I do share, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t hold back on a few tricks of the trade. The truth, though, is I would love nothing more than to see this art form flourish. Having said that though, I think spoon feeding every idea and technique we have to one another will discourage people from experimenting with their own creativity. In my eyes, there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” way of making balloons, but people may begin to think so if all they’ve ever done is recreate other balloon twister’s work move for move. It’s better to teach maybe a few basic shapes, and then let them take what they’ve learned and go in their own direction with it. That’s certainly how I got better. No one taught me how to make many of the characters I’ve crafted, but they did teach me a few fundamental moves to help me get there.
TrunkSpace: Twisting all of those balloons together and getting to where you’re at, creatively, you must have had a few balloons pop in the process of learning your craft. Are you ever nervous you’ll get to that final balloon of a masterpiece and they will all explode?
Tran: A few balloons popping? More like a few hundred. The sound of them exploding doesn’t startle me as much anymore. But yeah, I’m never nervous about a limb or piece accidentally blowing up when I’m done because it can easily be fixed. The biggest challenge actually is that each sculpture is a race against the clock. As you may know, balloons don’t have a very long shelf life once they’re inflated. Unlike an artist that might paint on a canvas, I can’t put aside my work and get back to it days later. I’ll spend hours nonstop working on a project. In fact no matter how exhausted I get, I’ll get so paranoid sometimes that I won’t even take a break because all I want to do is make sure that the completed sculpture is as fresh as possible. Even when I’m finally finished with something, they’re usually gone in just a few days. Whenever I’m working on a balloon just for fun, (usually a superhero or movie character of some sort) I’ll drop them off at my local comic book shop to be put on display. I figured, hey it’s going to shrivel eventually anyways, so better to showcase it somewhere to people who might appreciate it instead of keeping it locked away in my room. Sadly, other than taking photos of them, I can’t do much else to preserve my work. If I can find the silver lining in all of this though, it’s that balloons really teach people to appreciate what they have while it’s still around.
TrunkSpace: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Where do you think your magic and balloon art will take you and what do you hope to accomplish?
Tran: The future is a mystery to me. I have goals in mind, but life is unpredictable. If you told me several years ago that I’d be performing at birthday parties or teaching magic and balloon twisting to kids at a school one day, I wouldn’t have believed you, and yet here I am. I’ll tell you this though; I do hope to showcase a very different side of my balloons at an art gallery one day. I want to change the way people see balloons. Think about this for a moment; at little Jimmy’s birthday party, there are decorations, cake, and what else? Balloons. Is someone graduating? Let’s celebrate by bringing balloons. Perhaps someone you know isn’t feeling well, so what do you do? You get them a get well card, and of course, a handful of balloons. Even in the world of balloon twisting; life size sculptures, cool superheroes and costumes… people are captivated by what twisters are making and they’re beginning to see its potential now, but that kind of sums up what every twister is doing. What do all of these balloons and scenarios have in common? They are generally tied to positive emotions and experiences. Balloon art, like any other forms of art, should be able to trigger people in more ways than one. Sure I’ve delighted some people and maybe woo’ed a few others, but I want to do more than just that. When I’m not assembling characters, I’m making sculptures that I hope will set off other emotions like hurt, anger, disgust, sadness, jealously, etc. I once had a lady get teary eyed after showing her a balloon that I made, and I inadvertently almost made someone puke once after I unveiled something else that I created (although that’s a very unusual and extreme example).Call me insane, but I believe that if I focus more on stuff like this, then I’ll be one step closer to getting people to look beyond the balloon dog and sword. More than anything, I want to convince people that balloon sculpting is just as acceptable as any other form of art. I want to surprise people by taking what is widely known as a children’s play thing and create something with it that will move people in ways that they never thought balloons could.
TrunkSpace: For those who want to get in touch with you regarding your magic and/or balloon art, how can they go about reaching you and what venues are best?
Tran: If you’d like to book me for your next event, or if you simply just want to see more of my work, you can find me on Facebook here or on Instagram here.