Take more than 20,000 balloons, add in a fashion designer and an engineer and the result is an inflatable make-believe land, culled from some of the most well-known childhood fairy tales.
Up, Up & Away! is the husband and wife team of John and Johnna Perry. The day before the 2015 Kentucky State Fair opened, the couple, along with their dog Gidget, was in the giant atrium space in the North Wing Lobby, busily inflating 3,000 balloons in order to have something to work with once the fair opened.
“Most sculptures start with a whole object and parts are slowly removed as an item is refined, but with balloons you start with nothing and add to the space in order to create,” said Johnna Perry.
As the fair progressed the couple added a new sculpture to their display daily. There was Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, Hansel & Gretel, The Gilded Dragon of Ghent and The Little Mermaid made an appearance as well.
The couple usually finished their work at the fair by 5:00 PM daily, but large crowds continually gathered throughout the evenings to admire the progress of the balloon sculptures and have their pictures taken with the Perry’s creation as a backdrop.
“We’re ‘go big or go home’ people,” said Johnna. “We like things that are over the top.”
This was the ninth year the Perry’s, who live in the Kansas City area, have appeared at the Kentucky State Fair. They spend about a third of the year away from home out displaying their art, and have been fortunate to visit 17 countries doing what they love.
Both went to college to study art. Johnna has a fashion design background and John focused on engineering. What helped push them into this artistic pursuit was a job Johnna had as a floral arranger, where she had access to a trade journal on balloon decorating.
At that time there were two schools of thought about the creative use of balloons; either you were a balloon decorator and used round balloons; or a person was considered a balloon entertainer and only used long balloons – and never did round or long balloons meet.
“Everyone cooked from the same two types of recipes because it’s all they knew,” said Johnna. “We approached balloons like a chef, wanting to create something entirely new, so we began sculpting with balloons in a really non-traditional way, combining round and long balloons.”
Everything took off for the Perry’s once they attended a balloon entertainer’s convention in Austin, Texas, 16 years ago. It was the first one held and they had no idea if anyone would show up. Not only did folks show up, but they came from all over the world.
Afterward, the Perry’s joined a team of 43 participants from 14 different countries in Belgium to work on a sculpture in conjunction with the World Soccer Championship. The design came from two Americans, and a record was set as more than 40,000 balloons were used in total. That sounds like a lot, but the Perry’s used almost half that amount in their sculptures at this year’s fair.
Part of what makes their medium so successful is how they approach their design themes. Instead of making what they may like they instead come up with ideas that speak to their audiences. It starts with an idea and lots of sketching, one for each sculpture scene, including estimates of balloons needed and shapes required.
They are the only two-person team doing large design balloon sculpture. Usually micro-teams are assembled and members must meld their design styles to fit with those of the team, which can be tricky, but after doing this for 20 years together it comes easily for this duo.
The hardest part of the job is using big balloons and tying double balloons, where a smaller balloon is placed inside a larger one, and both must be inflated and tied separately. This attention to detail really makes their designs pop – and gives the couple some strong forearms.
Motion is also a common component in the couple’s installations. In a sea of balloons, it was eye-catching to see the swan and ducklings rotating about in their pool, or the crab and octopus spinning by the Little Mermaid.
In terms of infrastructure they try to minimize its use, but some designs need a frame for the sculpture to be built around. Most everything necessary can be purchased from Home Depot in the Plumbing and Electrical aisles. The balloons themselves are a natural product and are biodegradable, which is nice since Up, Up & Away! easily goes through 100,000 balloons yearly.
“Folks may never have visited an art museum, but they’ve touched balloons before,” said Johnna. “If people can relate to the material used in a creation it draws them in, and seeing what we do with a common medium like balloons inspires others to make their own art.”
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* Written for the Kentucky State Fair Board