Inflatable Ego

{mosimage}Addi Somekh is sitting on the garage floor of his Altadena home, banging on a collection of drums that he constructed by pulling balloons over various open containers. The salvaged paint cans and cardboard barrels have enough organic aspects that the drums, with their Play-Doh–colored stretched-rubber tops, transcend the visual campiness one would expect from the balloon-art genre. Instead, the instruments look more like a postmodern statement on recycling, similar to the baskets some Africans have started weaving from the littered plastic bags that blow across their landscape.

An illuminated lantern, which the 30-something Somekh made yesterday with multiple balloons and a fluorescent bulb — careful to not burn the rubber — hangs above him. Nearby there are piles of his “The Varieties of the Balloon Hat Experience” calendars and The Inflatable Crown Balloon Hat Book, which he and photographer Charlie Eckert published through Chronicle Books in 2001. The book documents the pair’s tour around the world — Vietnam, Thailand, Bosnia, the Turkana district of Kenya, remote villages along the Amazon, Jerusalem, Mali near the city of Timbuktu, and all the other places Somekh twisted balloon hats for the indigenous people they met.

Behind him, the garage door is open; leaves blow across his lawn as the crisp, post-rain sun shines through a cluster of sycamores. Dressed in grays and dark blues, the California native, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz and Manhattan’s New School for Social Research, looks a lot more like a laid-back, granola-eating grad student than a clown.

But he is not a clown. He is a balloon twister — albeit one with degrees in both sociology and organizational development, and an Iraqi-born engineer/physicist father who has a semiconductor invention displayed in the Information Age exhibit at the Smithsonian.

“One of the first applications for balloons,” Somekh says, “was laughing gas, nitrous oxide at carnivals through balloons to get high.”

Somekh’s personal trajectory, as he tells it, from upper-middle-class student with a passion for the grunge band Mudhoney and ambitions for high-dollar corporate consulting to balloon twister — a career that originated in vaudeville — is infused with all the divinity that one usually hears in the stories of athletes, politicians and others destined for greatness. Inspiration came from his unlikely 90-year-old muse/mentor Mary Holmes, an art-history professor and painter of mystical-themed works who taught at UC Santa Cruz and lectured to him, and others, about the importance of love, paradox and meaning at the esoteric and free Penny University. These ideas came together when he went home for the summer after his first year of college.

Heavy-hearted over the loss of his first love, who not only had another boyfriend but a near-certain death sentence from an aggressive tumor, Somekh spent days on end locked in his room, crying. His father, who didn’t know the details of Somekh’s situation, felt certain that his son was just “smoking pot and being lazy.” He insisted that Somekh get a job. A friend who worked construction but supplemented his income twisting balloons at a family restaurant let Somekh tag along, and soon he too was making dogs and turtles for the kids — not to mention $15 an hour in tips. There was no boss looking over his shoulder, and he didn’t have to shave every day. Even better was the fact that he appeared to have a talent for the job. It felt as if he had discovered the first thing he was ever good at.

A jazz enthusiast, Somekh had always known that he wanted to do something improvisational and artistic, but to his disappointment, he wasn’t any good at playing music or making visual fine art. Fixated on doing something to help the object of his affection while she was going through a seemingly endless series of surgeries, the balloon twisting also appealed to him because it seemed to hold the power to make all kinds of people laugh, especially his old girlfriend.

It wasn’t long before he gave up what he calls his “self-loathing balloon-twister mentality.” And miraculously, the girl he loved recovered completely. She left her boyfriend, and eventually she and Somekh were engaged.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I knew I wanted to do something that made sad people happy,” Somekh says. “I wanted to create some sort of chemical reaction in them. And even though that was what I wanted to do my whole life and all of a sudden I was doing it with balloons, the whole balloon thing seemed so insane to me it never even occurred to me that I was doing what I had always wanted to do. I thought I was a failure.”

While attending grad school in New York, he met Eckert, a novice photographer who was making a living designing closets for people. One night while walking to a costume party, both wearing balloon hats Somekh had made, Eckert was so moved by the positive response the two of them were getting on the streets that he suggested they travel around the world making balloon hats and photographing them. Instead of thinking the idea absurd, Somekh heard a click go off in his head, and the two booked their flights to Central America.

Before they left, Somekh’s parents told him he was an egomaniac and, if he wanted to do a photography book, he should at least hire a real photographer. Somekh went on the trip anyway. When he returned, friends responded positively to the images, which had a global-mindedness to them. His mentor Mary Holmes began educating him on the historical meaning of the headdress. The traveling had nurtured his innate sensitivity to reading people’s auras, and that expanded the depth of what he was doing. All this encouraged more improvisational elements, and soon he began to see that this twisting was the creative expression he had been longing for. Like jazz, it was boundless.

The book, which sold more than 30,000 copies at places like Barnes & Noble, was ultimately packaged, to the authors’ chagrin, as a how-to book and not as the art book they originally envisioned. But, as happens with many business endeavors, this forced the two friends to expand their skills. Somekh honed his ability to describe his work in educational detail, and Eckert learned to shoot indoors. It also attracted a fair amount of attention and added to Somekh’s brand, if you will. He’s even landed a sponsorship deal with the Qualatex Balloon Company. And with appearances on her television show and in her magazine, you could call him a Martha Stewart–sanctioned balloon twister.

Somekh continues to work bar mitzvahs, birthdays and weddings. And he has a contract with the L.A. Unified School District, where he teaches elementary school kids about geography, the importance of practice and the nature of laughter. He also has a TV show in development, and he and Eckert still want to make a proper art book of their travels.

But at this moment, it’s his balloon instruments that have his attention. For six years, he has been collaborating with other twisters and musicians to create the drums he plays now or the reed instruments that he constructs out of assorted tubing. His favorite is the balloon bass, which he has come to master.

The instrument, originally the brainchild of a Canadian named Sean Rooney, a “shamanic” balloon twister, as Somekh describes him, is essentially a resonator created with two skinny balloons, one placed inside the other, and a separate round balloon, which serves as the instrument’s main body. Somekh tapes a pickup amp to the construction and is able to electrify the sound.

Of course, he has a band, Unpoppable, with guitarist Henry Bermudez, whom he met during an open-mike night at Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park. Their first album, The Gift/Curse Combo, features avant-garde jazz drummer Kenny Wollesen and legendary dub engineer the Scientist. It will be available on his Web site this month.

“Balloons changed the world,” Somekh says, looking up from the drums. “The bicycle, someone had invented the bicycle before, but it had wooden tires and therefore couldn’t go up hills. When they came up with inflatable tires, which they could only do with rubber, then young people could actually cruise on the other side of town without having a horse. It changed the way people operated. Also weather balloons — people started being able to predict weather in a way they never had before.”

He could go on, but for now he’s content to bang the drum.

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