Super-talented "twisters" are blowing up all over the Valley.
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: Phoenix New Times, Thursday, January 12, 2006
Sitting down can be tricky for JoAnn Gray. She’s also got to
be on constant lookout for little boys with pins.
“Usually, I’ll have someone walking behind me,” she says,
“just to make sure nothing happens.”
Such are the hazards when you’re the world’s most in-demand
model of elegant balloon wear.
“It started when I was getting ready to go to a convention
here last year, and I didn’t have anything to wear,” explains the pretty
21-year-old brunette from Mesa, who fit her statuesque 5’9” frame into an inflated
Victoria’s Secret-style number for a photo shoot at a downtown Phoenix studio.
“I wanted to stand out, but I didn’t want to look stupid,
dressing up when nobody else was. So I got together with some people, and we
decided it’d be cool if I wore a balloon dress.”
It helped that the convention Gray was attending was Diamond
Jam, one of the four largest annual conventions of serious balloon artists in
the world. At big balloon fests like the D-Jam – which holds its second
annual four-day, uh, blow-out at the Mesa Holiday Inn this weekend, an event
open to the public – a growing subculture of adventurous “twisters,” as
they call themselves, puff, pinch and sculpt raw latex into creations wild
beyond the dreams of the average birthday party clown. Life-sized cars. A
working swing set. A King Kong that you can actually crawl inside of and wear.
Gray had gotten into twisting herself four years ago when,
while working as a waitress at the Mesa Macayo’s, she watched a balloon lady
come into the restaurant one night, twist a few balloon animals for the kids,
and walk away with more love – and bigger tips – from the crowd
than Gray could get in a week of slinging plates.
“She comes in, she does her balloons and goes home,” Gray
says. “And everybody loves her! I was so fed up with serving, and having
everybody always mad at me, I just thought, ‘That’s what I wanna do!’”
Gray hooked up with the Valley’s twisting community through
an international web forum, BalloonHQ.com, and began learning the craft by
attending the monthly meetings of what turned out to be a very active and
“Here in Arizona,” Gray says, “we’re like the one state
where twisters actually get together and jam out.” As in all cliques, the
twisters have their own petty squabbles and competitions. But Gray feels it’s
ultimately one line of work totally dedicated to the pursuit of happiness.
“If you’re not happy,” she says, “you won’t be successful in
Last January, when she came up with the inspiration to wear
a balloon dress to the convention, she tapped the talents of a favorite
Canadian twister, who fashioned her a huge hoop skirt made entirely out of
pink, blue, yellow and white balloons.
“Mark Verge designed that one, which I wore and everybody
loved,” she says, pointing to a picture on her ever-present laptop. “And then
after that, it just took off.”
Other twisters around the globe, inspired by Internet
pictures of Verge’s design and by Gray’s sexy embrace of balloon wear (“It’s a
little warm, because of all the latex,” she says, “But it feels exciting!”),
began making up their own imaginative creations for Gray to show off and
inviting her to their events – taking her as far away as Belgium, Germany
and Amsterdam. Before long, the twisters had their very own international
“Well, it’s not like people are always calling me to say,
‘Hey, would you model my balloon dress?’ she says, laughing. “But it’s kind of
going that way. Everybody knows JoAnn is the girl who’ll wear the balloons.”
Already the role of the twisters’ “it” girl has been good
for Gray, a young single mom with a two-year-old son, who ditched plans to
study psychiatry so that she’d have more time to devote to both making and
“Most people I know my age are like, ‘Are you crazy? Do
balloons?’ They don’t believe you can make good money at it.
“But you can,” she adds. “And you can be happy. I probably
never would have visited Europe until my old age. But now, I’ve been there
twice in one year. And I’m going back again in May.”
Gray says she’s turned three other waitress friends –
including a former Hooters girl – on to the bigger, happier world of
“I’m telling you, once you train somebody and they go try
it,” she says, smiling, “they never go back.”
They meet the last Wednesday of every month, at the IHOP on
Elliot and Alma School Road in Chandler.
The night typically starts out slow, with the twisters
sitting around the back tables, comparing notes on how to craft the latest
in-demand animated hero (“How do you make that one stray hair on Mr.
But by midnight, the back room is a battlefield of inflated
body parts and popped latex, with the women stuffing their tops with instant
implants and the guys challenging each other to see who can blow up the most
balloons simultaneously through their noses. To up the gross-out factor, the
guys choose various shades of yellowish-green.
Dan Vincent, the organizer of the monthly “jams,” as they’re
called, says he started holding the gatherings at this restaurant two years ago
as a way to bring the community together between the sporadic conventions.
“I figured, ‘Why wait ‘till once a year to get together?’”
Vincent says, greeting the regulars as they arrive with their arsenals of
balloons, ordering rounds of coffee and soda. “‘Why not do it every month?’”
What started out as just four people hanging around the back
of the IHOP making balloons has been multiplying steadily, Vincent says. “Now
when you come to the jams, there’s maybe 20 or 30 people here. And the manager
says this is the best night their IHOP has all month. People bring their kids
in to get free balloons.”
With an ample belly built low to the ground – a
physique practically designed for hanging a heavy latex-stuffed apron around
– Vincent personifies the nickname on his calling card and Web site, Dan
the Balloon Man.
He’s got the attitude you’d want in a balloon man, too: “I
try to meet every request that comes in,” he says. “You name it, I’ll make it.”
At work at his regular gig, the Sunday morning shift at
another IHOP in Chandler, Vincent says he never looks at his tips, even though
tips are all you get working the restaurants, still the twister’s primary
“When someone gives me something, I just put it in my
pocket, and I won’t even know what I’ve made until I leave,” he says. “That way
I’m not thinking about the money.”
Vincent is all about the “shock and awe” factor in making
every odd request take wondrous shape in twisted latex. “Little girl was having
her tenth birthday, and wanted a platypus,” he says, by way of example. “So I
made her one. And her grandpa told me, ‘Every year since she was one, the
balloon guy would come to her table and she’d always ask for a platypus. On her
tenth year, she finally got one.’ Those are the kinds of things you do this
When he started his monthly jams, Vincent envisioned his
role as a kind of a “pop” culture homeroom teacher, leading the crew through
whatever cool technique he may have picked up over the last few weeks.
“I say, ‘Okay everyone, gather ‘round. We’re gonna learn
this new octopus.’ Or, ‘Okay, guys, what are we doing for porcupines?’”
Lately, though, Vincent’s been losing some control over the
group, as the talent showing up for the jams is beginning to eclipse his own.
Jeremy Johnston, a young hotshot known for making huge,
elaborate balloon sculptures always off the top of his head, has become the
main attraction at most jams, tonight whipping up a giant sleigh and reindeer
while Vincent toils away quietly at an eight-foot Santa.
“Jeremy likes the big stuff,” says Vincent, who obviously
does, too. “And he’s kind of the draw now. People come in and watch him.”
Johnston, the son of veteran clown and caricature artist
Roger Johnston, has always had the unique gift of “thinking in balloons,” his
“I’d ask him to draw something, and he’d say, ‘Dad, I can’t
draw it, but I can make it with balloons.’”
The younger Johnston is a quiet genius, tossing in a clever
quip only occasionally between the clatter of the rest of the group. But his
creations – big, crazy improvisations like a Frankenstein with Elvis hair
and guitar and life-sized superheroes with rippling balloon six-packs –
speak loudly enough to set him apart from the crowd.
Vincent claims he has no problems sharing the spotlight with
wunderkinds like Johnston.
“I don’t wanna be overlooked,” he says. “But I wanna
showcase everybody. That’s why we have the jams in public, instead of at
someone’s house. It’s all about networking and sharing, and also getting
And, of course, having fun. “Oh, yeah. Sometimes we’ll go
‘till 2 in the morning,” he says, getting back to his balloons. “It can be hard
to stop, when a bunch of us get together.”
As a balloon artist who travels in the same professional
circles as other party entertainers, some of Ed Chee’s best friends are clowns.
But that doesn’t mean the Valley’s leading Certified Balloon Artist (CBA) likes
the popular image the average Bozo has given to balloon art.
“When people think of balloons, the first image they have is
of a clown at a kid’s birthday party making swords,” says Chee, whipping up his
own twist on the clichéd party favor over afternoon coffee at the Starbucks
across from Desert Ridge Marketplace, not far from where he lives. “But it’s
just way more advanced than that now.”
Fashioning a deluxe ribbed handle at the sword base by
twisting off a series of half-inch balls and bending the group back into the
longer section making up the shaft, Chee says the gap between amateur and
professional balloon art has gotten to where it’s like “the difference between
buying a print at Wal-Mart or a Picasso original. The problem is, people are
not appreciating the difference in value yet.”
To pop the public perception of just what can be done today
with balloons – and to give the growing worldwide community of twisters a
place to meet one another and share tips and tricks – Chee began
organizing the Diamond Jam conventions, first as an offshoot of the larger
Clownarama in 2004, and the following year as its own specialized event.
Along with contests in Belgium, Japan and one in Austin,
Chee’s Diamond Jam is already recognized as one of the main events of the
global twister community. For this year’s affair, Chee is bringing in ten of
the world’s top twisting instructors, drawing talent from the UK, Netherlands,
France, Canada and the U.S.
“Every country has its own style of twisting,” says Chee,
the current world champ in the “detailed artistic” category, whose own work
blends the precision miniaturist style associated with twisters of his Asian
heritage with an American flair for whimsy. “In Belgium, they’re really wild.”
To kick things up a notch, Chee’s also offering a $5,000
prize to the winner of the “anything goes” competition – the largest
purse ever offered at a balloon contest, he says.
“My big thing is I’d like to see twisting move up more as an
art form,” he says. “And the way to do that is give exposure to the people
willing to stretch new ideas, if you will, way beyond people’s expectations.”
Already, there are legends within the twister culture. David
Grist, an English twister who died of a heart attack last January, is renowned
as an innovator whose most famous creation, a wearable Model T car, is often
saluted at conventions in homage’s fashioned by devotees of his nine
instructional DVD’s. Provo, Utah’s Marvin Hardy, scheduled to speak at Diamond
Jam, is another icon; his book Balloon Magic, with over 3 million copies in print, has been studied, Chee says, by
easily 95% of the people twisting today.
Chee, who supplements his income by producing twisting DVDs
himself, says twisting has only recently reached its creative peak, and credits
the surge to a combination of advances in balloon manufacturing (“The color
palette is there now; before you only had ten colors”) and the synergy of
twisters seeing each other’s work, via the Internet, DVDs and the conventions,
and sharing their own unique touches and techniques.
“The skill level has gone up like crazy,” he says. “But
there’s still these guys out there who are promulgating the myth that it’s all
just simple dogs and swords.”
Pulling a few vibrantly-colored balloons from the 4,000
stuffed into his apron – “I go through 20,000 balloons a month,” he says
– Chee spends about seven minutes blowing and twisting multiple balloons
into what eventually emerges as a Disney-worthy princess, complete with a
fetching painted-on face and over-inflated cleavage heaving out over her light
blue dress. “I live in Scottsdale,” he quips. “That’s all I ever see!”
Across the Starbucks, a well-dressed woman eyes Chee’s
creation and approaches him to ask for a business card, tentatively booking him
for an upcoming party in Anthem. Chee winks and says that’s the only way the
more advanced twisters can draw in people willing to pay the extra hundred
dollars or so over the average clown’s going rate.
“You can’t pick out a twister from the phone book,” he says.
“But when you’re out working in a restaurant and people get to see for
themselves what your capabilities are, that’s what sells them.
“Most people are blown away,” he adds, smiling at the
intentional pun, “when they see something really phenomenal done with
There are old men who come to the IHOP jams who’ve been
twisting balloons for decades, and are confounded by the wild stuff the younger
twisters are making today.
“These guys are way above me in the things that they do,”
admits an 82-year-old gent who goes by the name Feathers the Clown, and who
still works weekend mornings at the same IHOP that hosts the jams. “I do enough
just to get a smile out of ‘em.”
And then there are newcomers like Marie Dadow, a
transplanted California girl who only picked up twisting a little over a year
ago and has already nabbed the coveted Ralph Dewey Balloon Excellence Award,
one of the highest honors in the balloon twisting world.
“A lot of the old-school people gave me flack when I started
getting recognition, because they said I came along after all the twisting
innovations,” Dadow says. “Like, they didn’t have all these colors to work with
when they were starting out. Or there
weren’t all these established techniques. But hey, it’s not my fault I got into
this at the best possible time!”
More than most of the artists in the Valley twister
community, which Chee numbers at about 60, Marie Dadow is acutely tuned in to
the weird politics and business dealings that go on among what appears on the
surface to be a perpetually happy, easygoing bunch.
“Who gets credit for what is very big in these circles,” she
reveals, noting that artists will try to claim ownership of a design by being
the first to include it in an instructional video or in a photo posted on
“I made a butterfly where I took Don Caldwell’s basic design,
and Jeanine [Von Essen]’s way that she makes her weave on the wings, and
Patricia Bunnell’s way that she crimps the wings,” she says, dropping some
notable names. “And a friend of mine came over and said, ‘Oh, you’re doing
Dadow admits she usually starts a creation by copying
something she’s seen before. “I try it one or two times, and then I add
something to make it my own.” And she acknowledges that some innovations
– like Californian Ken Stillman’s bright idea of using an over inflated
heart-shaped balloon to create the dimpled chin of a cartoon superhero –
clearly bear the indelible mark of their creator.
“There are some things where we all know where it comes
from,” Dadow says. “But how far back do you have to go? I mean, there’s only so
many ways you can make something with balloons. If you get people all around
the world trying to make the latest kid’s movie character, you’re gonna have
some similarities. Right?”
Dadow takes a deep breath, and apologizes for exposing the
dark underbelly of the shiny, happy balloon crowd.
“Really, I love the balloons,” she insists. “I just hate all
the other stuff that goes on around them – having to give credit to the
right person, and all the squabbles that go on. Sometimes I feel, ‘Oh, you guys
are killing me! Can’t we just get back to playing with balloons?’”
“You gotta meet J.P.,” says Dadow, flagging down an older
fellow with a loud Hawaiian shirt and an even louder laugh that’s been
resonating throughout the IHOP all night. “J.P.’s a hoot and a half.”
Dadow admits that when she first met J.P. Weigt, a retiree
who got into twisting to be “the cool grandpa” and soon discovered he loved
hanging out with the balloon crowd, she was a bit taken aback by his
boisterous, over-the-top manner and his decidedly un-PC way with the ladies.
“We’re glad to have Marie with us,” Weigt says, picking up
on her intro. “She’s a hell of a twister – and kinda easy on the eyes,
what do you think? I mean, is she hot or what!”
“When you first meet him,” Dadow warns beforehand, “you’re
like, ‘Whoa, buddy! Calm down a bit!’ But then after that, you just have to
Among the Valley’s twisters, Weigt is the guy with all the
wildest stories – although sometimes the others in the group can’t resist
retelling his greatest exploits themselves.
“The story I heard was he was out golfing,” says Ric Fout, a
fellow twister, “ran into these ladies, got to talking, and they found out J.P.
“Lady golfers,” Dadow interjects, with a knowing smirk.
“Well, they hire him for a party, he gets there, and it’s a
lesbian party,” Fout continues. “At the end of three hours of creating the
lewdest, crudest balloons you can imagine, they pass around a brandy snifter,
containing mostly $50’s and $100’s, and I heard by the end of the night he
walked away with a little over $1100.”
“I heard $1500,” Dadow adds.
Weigt himself is a bit foggy on the amount, but vividly
recalls the balloons he made and the wild time the ladies had with them.
“Let’s just say it was a great day, dude! So much fuuuun!” he says, with a wicked laugh. “Believe me,
balloons aren’t just for kids!”
Clearly, Weigt is the life of the party at the jams, and a
big part of why they’re still going. Dadow says he’s the guy responsible for
e-mailing the monthly invites and a major reason people keep returning for the
“No matter what kind of mood you’re in,” Dadow says, “he
just lifts your spirits so much.”
Everyone’s spirits were dealt a crushing blow just six days
before Christmas, when the news broke of a Peoria police officer who’d been
shot, just above his bullet-proof vest, during a drug raid. Twisters recognized
Bill Weigt, a father of four who had joined the Peoria force just 18 months ago
and was now, reports said, left paralyzed from the arms down, as J.P.’s son.
The imagery of the sad clown lurks beneath the surface of
the balloon twisters’ happy-go-lucky world. But at no time does it come more to
life than in listening to J.P.’s account of how he sat at his son’s bedside the
day after the shooting and twisted balloons for what marked young Bill’s 31st
“It was his birthday on the 20th,” Weigt says two days
later, speaking in a slightly shaky voice on a cell phone from the hospital.
“So I made him up a big birthday cake out of balloons, and a big ol’ Santa
Claus and a bunch of crap that he likes. And it was kind of cool to watch him
light up. It lights up everybody else who comes in the room, too, and kinda
takes everybody’s mind off the bad stuff, at least for a while.”
Weigt says he’s already sending out the invites for the
coming week’s IHOP jam, and insists the show will go on.
“It’s a little bit of a stress relief, and it kinda feels
good when you get pissed off to twist
something around,” he adds, letting loose with one of his trademark laughs.
“We’re hanging right in there, and we’re gonna keep
positive,” he says. “That’s where the balloons really help.”
At a late December photo shoot featuring what a consensus of
the community agrees to be the best of the Valley’s twisters, there’s a palpable
tension in the air that isn’t detectable at the monthly jams.
While Jeremy Johnston and Marie Dadow put the finishing
touches on the elegant balloon dress they spent nine hours creating for JoAnn
Gray the day before, and Ed Chee and Dan Vincent decide which parts of
Vincent’s giant motorcycle design they each want to tackle, Vincent’s
girlfriend Jessica – who, insiders say, is irked Gray has snatched the
cover shot from her balloonesque beau – keeps a disapproving eye fixed on
Photos are everything in the twisters’ world, where all
great works of art shrivel within days. And exposure in any printed media is
seen as a major career-booster, if not a path to immortality for the doomed
balloons. So it’s probably only natural that the competition heats up whenever
a few cameras are standing at the ready.
But there’s an odd sense of abandonment after the photos
have all been shot and the artists are left with the question of what to do
with their masterpieces. Most opt to leave them behind, rather than squeeze
them into their cars. A few of the smaller pieces are stuffed into a trash can,
with a box cutter setting off deadly pops like a submachine gun.
Chee sees the brief shelf life of his art form as one of the
main reasons people have trouble placing a high value on the twister’s work.
“It’s transitory art,” he says sadly. “Let’s face it: there
are only so many days that the pieces will last.”
For the twisters themselves, though, their art sometimes
appears to be immediately disposable. After spending over four hours teamed
with Chee creating his elaborate giant motorcycle – complete with a cool
teardrop gas tank, a V-block engine and flaming exhaust pipes – Vincent
looks ready to simply walk out on the creation he’s just given up a morning’s
work at his day job to complete.
“What do you want to do with this?” he’s asked as he straps
on his big balloon apron and turns to leave the studio.
Vincent just shrugs and delivers his cold verdict with the
“Pop it,” he says.