Recently, Apprill has begun to experiment in the new field of balloon couture. For a balloon fashion show in Las Vegas last summer, he designed a hoop skirt with a matching parasol. A live model (recruited from Craigslist) wore it down the runway.

"Most people think of a balloon on a string," Apprill says. "I want to make the customer realize that they are more than balloons on strings. Every balloon tells a story."

As a student at Webster University in the early 1990s, Jason Hackenwerth had the best balloon-twisting job in St. Louis: He was a member of Team Fredbird. "I'd make crazy hats and pump up the crowd out in Big Mac Land. And I got to hang out with the cheerleaders."

Alien Rain Forest, a sculpture by Jason Hackenwerth.
Jason Hackenwerth
Alien Rain Forest, a sculpture by Jason Hackenwerth.


RFT Slide Shows

The creations of St. Louisan Troy Apprill in a slide show.

Not your average balloon animal: The abstract creations of Jason Hackenwerth in a slide show.

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Hackenwerth got into balloons after he discovered that wearing clown makeup and busking at Union Station was far more lucrative than making copies at Kinko's. He learned the basics from his mother, who was also a street performer. But what he really wanted to do was paint and sculpt.

Years later, as a struggling artist in New York, Hackenwerth was still making ends meet by twisting hats and swords for tourists in Times Square. In the middle of the night, he'd sneak down into the subways and construct balloon sculptures.

"I'd make very short balloons, like mushroom caps or fungus, and when the trains came, they would wiggle and wave," he remembers. "The best part was surprising people, to see them smile instead of looking like zombies."

He had to stop when the police threatened to arrest him for littering. "They didn't recognize the magic power of balloons," he says sadly.

In 2004 he was invited to take part in the SCOPE art fair in London. His piece "was about the London fire, from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, likening it to the orange security alert in the U.S. I put balloons all over the hotel. The walls were covered with balloons. It looked like flames. It took 36 hours. Then I went to take a nap for two hours, and the hotel staff took them all down."

Hackenwerth was distraught. But in the bathtub at 4 a.m., he had an inspiration: He still had several hundred red, yellow and orange balloons. He would twist them into a giant sculpture. Seven hours later, he had completed Second Nature, 600 yellow balloons exploding from a wall of red, like blood pouring out of a vein.

A career was launched.

These days Hackenwerth displays his balloon sculptures in galleries all over the world. (In October he returned to Webster for a show at the Cecille R. Hunt Gallery.) Unlike the work of most other balloon artists, his forms are abstract, most frequently compared to sea anemones or vaginas.

"My sculptures are twisted together, like a scarf pattern," he explains. "I repeat the form and add more inner structure and pull the shape in or out. There's a kinship between this and the process of the shells sea creatures form. It's a pattern of growth."

James regrets that Hackenwerth doesn't have a larger presence in the balloon world. "Larry Moss thought of doing balloons as an art form," he says. "Jason has done it to the extreme — in a good way. He's not recognized in the balloon world as he should be. But he doesn't do it for us. He does it for the art world."

So far, no one at any of Hackenwerth's gallery shows has asked him to make a balloon dog. This disappoints him. "If anybody asked me, I'd offer to twist my cock into a poodle. I've been practicing for so long."

Ah, balloons! Symbols of innocence! Companions to lonely children! Who, after watching Albert Lamorisse's classic 1956 film, The Red Balloon, would not want to wander Paris with a red latex friend in tow? ("I was very intrigued by that movie," Apprill remembers.)

But, perversely, some balloons have taken on a more sinister aspect. Consider the enormous titular object of Donald Barthelme's short story "The Balloon," which hovers over lower Manhattan. "Some people," Barthelme writes, "claimed that they felt sheltered, warmed, as never before, while enemies of the balloon felt, or reported feeling, constrained, a 'heavy' feeling."

In the real world, in California, there have been attempts to ban helium-filled Mylar balloons. The mixture of helium and foil is said to conduct electricity, and a stray balloon tangled in a high-tension wire could cause widespread power outages. The Balloon Council, a group of pro-balloon activists, says these accusations have no merit. Current law requires all helium balloons to be weighted down to prevent accidents.

This may not be a problem for much longer. A nationwide helium shortage has been driving up the price of balloon bouquets.

But the sorrows of balloon artists are more mundane. No matter how tight the knots are tied, no matter how carefully it is tended, a balloon sculpture always shrivels.

"It's magical, breathtaking," says Hackenwerth. "And then the sadness hits. It's a reminder of the briefness of life."

"That's why I take pictures," says Apprill, who is seldom without his iPhone. "It doesn't last forever. Nothing really neat lasts forever. It lasts as long as it can."

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