What is it about light, bright rubber filled with air that brings us so much joy? Balloons of all types have a nostalgic appeal that’s hard to pinpoint, but whether we’re talking round and helium-filled or blown and twisted like a pretzel to create animals and fun shapes, balloons equal creative whimsy and a kind of simple fun.
Buster Balloon’s work is anything but simple, though. The talented Orange County–bred creator and performer has been called “the No. 1 balloon artist in the world” by Jeff Koons himself, while W Magazine dubbed him “the Michelangelo of balloons.” His work has been featured in galleries and exhibits around the world and inspired a line of collectible vinyl figures from MindStyle Inc. But it’s in a live show format, surrounded by wide-eyed little ones (and adults) marveling at his incredible handiwork and giggling at his infusion of comedy, puppets and magic, that he’s happiest. And it all started when he was a kid himself.
“I began drawing and sculpting when I was 3 years old, and fell in love with magic when I was 5,” Mr. Balloon (whose real name is Buster Caldwell) says. “When I was about 18 I discovered balloon twisting, and it was like the best of both worlds. I could create art while interacting with the person it was intended for.”
Caldwell says his only formal art training came via his high school art teacher, Mrs. Schaffer, at Anaheim High School. “She taught me that anything and everything is a potential artistic medium,” he remembers. “So a few years later when I discovered balloon twisting, it just seemed to click.”
Inspired by artists as varied as Basil Gogos, Shag, Olivia De Berardinis and Gris Grimly, Caldwell says his goal has never been to replicate others but to reinterpret imagery that attracts his eye. “I [think about] the way their work makes me feel, and I try to re-create that with balloons,” says the O.C. resident, who never copies other people's work (even other balloon artists), but instead puts my own special twist on things. “My style just sort of evolved based on what I like. I love classic cartoons, and I think that is probably the most obvious inspiration for my work. But also things like pop culture, retro culture, toys, Disney.”
So how does he come up with and perfect his designs? “By listening to the balloons, “ he says. “I will get the flicker of an idea or inspiration, then grab a handful of balloons and begin to twist. But the balloons always have the last word on what they will be. Some colors of balloons are stronger than others, some shapes and sizes have weak spots. Making a good balloon sculpture is about finding a balance between your artistic vision and embracing the physical and structural confines of the medium.”
Performing at the White House twice — once for George W. Bush and once for Barack Obama — and all around the world, Caldwell is best known locally for shows in L.A. and O.C. schools and libraries. He just finished a gig at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose as part of its Halloween event, and can be seen periodically through Halloween at Mr. Bones' Pumpkin Patch in Culver City.
As a full-time artist, when not transforming balloons into dazzling sculptures, he’s doing paperwork, contracts and “other less fun stuff” but also spends “a lot of time eating presweetened breakfast cereal and watching cartoons.” Caldwell says he loves making “one-off” pieces and trying to fulfill special requests that he’s never made before and “very well may never make again.” His work is clever, colorful and awe-inspiring, but it doesn’t last. Does that make him sad? Not at all, he chuckles, “I prefer to think of it as job security.”
Buster Balloon schedule of shows and appearances on the Tour Dates page at BusterBalloon.com.