The Balloon Tycoon: Q&A with Drew Ripley

drew ripley night\shift D rew Ripley picked up his first balloon sculpture instruction in 1990 and has spent the last two dozen years entertaining people with deep breaths and a powerful imagination. When he says things like “a balloon is a way to have some fun and create memories,” he’s being incredibly serious – in July 2014 he was a team leader for a 30,000-balloon space shuttle built for the Transplant Games of America in Houston, Texas.

During NIGHT\SHIFT 2014, Ripley is teaming up with Community Car Share to make a life-sized vehicle out of balloons, surely one of the best potential photo ops for festival-goers. Popping Car Culture attempts to open up dialogue about Waterloo Region’s car culture and foster discussion about our unnecessary addiction to driving. Drew talks to NIGHT\SHIFT about the exhibit as well as his art.

Why does car culture need to be popped?

Cars are throwaway items. Under the best circumstances, when you buy a car you’ll have 15 years and all the money you dump into it is gone. So over the lifetime of your car, you’re going to spend well over $300,000 dollars , and the end result is you went places and you put something in a landfill. We waste an enormous amount of energy with these things; we waste an enormous amount of infrastructure.

Gone are the days from the 70s and 80s when cars were the only way to get around. There’s no room to expand city roads. So CarShare and I have been looking for a project for a while now. And this is going to be cool, it’s going to turn heads. And don’t get me wrong, I still like cars and think there are elements that are positive, but we have to change society because our cities can’t handle more cars – they just can’t.

Drew Ripley

Can you describe the balloon car you’re creating?

We’ll have it set up so you can take photos. We’ll do something with the trunk because we want to involve prizes and such. We’ll probably make it white or green, dress it up and have some fun of it. I’m going to point out some of the dirty aspects of the car – a smog machine producing nasty things and basically the downside of vehicle traffic. The car has been a very useful transportation tool, but it is not the only transportation tool anymore. That’s the issue. So that’s how we want to play on this. Make people think about it.

How will it be similar or different from an actual full-sized car?

We don’t need an engine, so that solves a lot. There are plans online and training courses I’ve taken. Like the submarine [ below ], I will created blueprints, usually with the dimensions of each balloon. The only difference is with this project, the car has to stand up by itself, with only the balloon wheels as support.


How did your collaboration with Community Carshare come about?

This is our first artistic partnership. We both have been supporting each other with various things. My purpose is to provide whimsy and wonder, whereas they are filling a very obvious, critical transportation need. If it wasn’t for them, my family would have experienced some very difficult transportation challenges. Over time, I’ve promoted them as their service made it possible to grow my fledgling business. They like to promote the fact that they have a balloon artist as a member – because I do have a pretty unusual job.

What is your typical creative process?

The bigger the item, the more important it becomes to start with a sketch. It’s very similar to painting. So when I create a smaller structure – say a child comes up to me and they’ll say “I want this !” – then I will look at my set [of balloons] and think I’ll need these colours, these “brushes.” I’m wearing this set and I pull the balloons out on the spot.


Then you get to the sculptural pieces. Items like that I’ll doodle a bit first before building. My last one was a zombie for the art market [left]. With any piece, I’ll spend a day or two just pondering how it’s going to look, its story – most of my creations have a story of some kind. The zombie was fun. He got himself in a battle so his left side, his shoes, pants, hand was gone. His head is bashed in and there’s goo. In his right hand, he had a brain so he’d successfully gotten some lunch. That story is the kind of thing I have to think about. Best result from that night, people would come up and put their arms around him. Just like any art, good art should make people think beyond “Ohh pretty…” I want them to interact. I want people to feel something – and if I’m really good, I want them to do something.

After that, when you get up to 1,000-plus balloons, it’s no longer freeform. It gets down to the numbers. There are sketches and drawings and special balloons. The standard balloon is called a 260 and it’s based on standard diameter, so the 646 which is used in a large structure is three times the diameter. When [the sculpture] gets into these, we have to know exactly what we’re doing because we don’t want to miss. If it doesn’t look as good, I’m unsatisfied as an artist.


When we get really big, it’s Larry and Kelly at Airigami who design it and I am so proud to be a team member with them. The Jack and the Beanstalk one [ right ] was amazing. When you’re an adult and you walk into a room and you have to lean up to look at a balloon structure – your tongue is tied. You’re like “What…how?”

When I work with balloons, it’s important that they challenge and push me. I want people to go “that’s amazing!” I want that memory and I want them to go out and hopefully remember many things from that night. Art is meant to be shared, it’s meant to be provocative, it’s meant to make you think. If I get to do all three of those – what a great life. I’m very hopeful that the car is going to do that and I think it will.

What are your perpetual challenges? Can you highlight an unexpected one?

Time is the biggest one. The hardest thing about being a balloon artist is to get the timing right. As an artist, you have a point where your product has to be ready. I want my balloons to be as perfect as they can be for that moment. If I start too late, it doesn’t get done on time. If I start too early, it’s not going to be as crisp as I want.

With the car I think we’ll be ready. Again it comes down to how well I’ll prepare – that’s the big challenge. Sometimes supply can be a big issue. For example, for the space shuttle project [ below – or click the link to see it built ], the factory called the day before and said if you need these balloons, you have half an hour or there’s not going to be enough in the industry for this project. With the super big-scale projects, you just have to adapt.

Why and how did you become a balloon artist?


Back in the 80s I went to Vegas with my parents. I saw Siegfried and Roy and David Copperfield and The King Charles Unicycle Troupe. I was so hopped up on what I had seen and I guess I wouldn’t shut up about it. My dad searched really hard for a magic shop in Toronto. I started doing shows. I’ve always dabbled with this industry somehow, I just never stopped. I went through school and university, got a real job and I still performed on the side and had fun with it. And after the recession, I had four different companies go bankrupt while I worked for them. After the fourth one, I was like, “Forget this.” I love [making things out of balloons], I can make people happy: I think I can go with this.

Now I go out and if I have a really busy day, it’s physically demanding and I’m tired, but I’m amped because I spent the day helping kids giggle and parents laugh. There’s so much suffering in the world. You pick up a newspaper and its war this and war that. Hopefully I’m going to give a wonderful and positive memory. And I become crazy excited when I have a child come up and they have a moment to tell me something about themselves. Those conversations are not about me, they’re about giving that child more control – what color do you want, etc. I’m trying to get their creativity and their voice out.

So who inspires you?


David Copperfield inspires me because of his dedication. Doug Henning was also very inspiring because he brought magic back into a showy disco family show. But actually the people that inspire me the most are leaders. We have a real void of leadership. A lot of people hate their jobs and this comes down to how we’re treated and how we’re led and how we’re valued.

A man by the name of Walter Hailey, who is deceased now – I think of him a lot. Of all things, he was a very successful insurance salesman. But he figured out the way to grow a business and be successful is to be a really good leader. To make people feel valuable is more important than the physical product you work on.

More modern ones: Adam Savage; Jay Leno, to a lesser extent, I read a book by him on why it’s important to be nice; and Seinfeld, an extremely dedicated guy who would write comedy every morning because he realized he was addicted to hearing people laugh. Those are the people that drive me right now. People are in your life for a short period, so what are you going to do to make their day better?

How do you hope Popping Car Culture will inspire NIGHT\SHIFT explorers?

team lead

There’s the surface reaction – “Wow I’m actually in a balloon structure!” That in itself is pretty surreal and even for me, it’s like becoming a cartoon character. The second one is that I really hope to push the conversation further. I don’t want to pinpoint a hot button. I just want people to think. Is CarShare the best thing for my family? Or cycling? I hope that happens. Good art is provocative – this is probably my most political sculpture. And I hope the idea that cars are kinda silly gets across to people. Why are we so fixated?

What excites you about being a part of Night\Shift 2014?

I’m looking forward to taking pictures of people in the car, to getting out and meeting people. Anyone who attended it last year is going to think, “What crazy thing am I going to see tonight?” We’re going to see people sharing memories and participating in something cool. Hopefully this year, since we’re doing it with the CarShare staff, I can go “Here’s the camera, I’m going to out for a walk” and I’ll get to see a different section of the event. With this one, all the work is going to be leading up to it, so I’ll have time to explore. I mean last year’s was amazing, unbelievable, there was just so much stuff. It’ll be great.

EXTRA: Watch kid-sized Ripley perform and see how amazing he was even from the start!

Connect with Drew on Twitter, Facebook and visit his website !