Thomas Callahan ’22 is not an art major. He is not active in any art clubs on campus. But every so often, Callahan works as a professional artist or creates pieces in his room. His medium? Balloon animals.
Callahan’s beginning, much like his form, was nontraditional. His hometown in Laurel County, Kentucky, happens to also be the home of the original KFC and hosts an annual chicken festival in celebration. Callahan participated in the festival as a member of FFA, Future Farmers of America, a youth organization focused on agriculture. One year, the FFA booth was unable to participate. Callahan, left with the booth and no food permit, had three days to brainstorm something to be able to sell. So in those three days, Callahan sat down, watched Youtube videos, bought supplies, and taught himself how to make balloon animals.
“Anyone can do it,” he protested when I commented on his unique talent. “I think the reason a lot of people don’t do it is psychological — they’re afraid of the balloon popping.”
Callahan makes a wide variety of latex creations.
“You got the turtle which is always a cute little one, about the size of a fist. You can have poodles or monkeys or bananas or bears, or there are bigger ones like swords, shields, and hats and crowns.”
Callahan’s most ambitious creation yet is a balloon bicycle.
“I wanted to make something that was an everyday object, but that was large. I wanted to recreate it to scale,” Callahan remarked. He took creative liberty in the balloon colors he chose for the piece. “You want there to be a certain rhyme and consistency — each wheel is the same color. But a part of the animals is the fun and whimsy behind it. And so, you want all these beautiful neon bright flashy colors that don’t go together, because that’s what makes it so cute.”
Callahan’s art is much like himself — full of fun and whimsy. His inspirations, too, can be mischievous.
“Every month or so, I’ll just be thinking about it. I’ll be like, ‘I’m rusty.’ So I’ll make a poodle in my room and just give it to the next the first person that walks through. It’s really intensive practice in spatial reasoning. So, most of the time, I don’t rely on a picture for it. In your head, in real time, in front of having to figure out what folds going, what direction, and what pinches have to come first, and how much later. Because if you make a mistake, you have to restart the whole thing over. Your poodle is gonna get like a two foot tail and just not going to look right. Figuring out in the moment, how to execute it — some of the most fun parts are when you get requests for things you never made before. Once I was at an event, and they requested a unicorn, which I’d never done before. I mean, you can say no. But what’s the fun in that? So you have to figure out pretty quickly — I can do a little pointy thing on a dog. And if you mess up, it’s okay because it’s cute just figuring it out. It’s an art that teaches mechanics and patience. [Children] can sit down, and they can unravel it, and they can put it back together.”
Although Callahan enjoys experimenting with his art in his room, his favorite part of making balloon animals is the joy they bring to children.
“Every now and then, I’ll get booked for a birthday party in the ville. Yeah, they really enjoy it. They have a good time. I just like to make the animals, and I like to make a bunch of six year olds laugh. And watch them do sword fights. That’s really — that’s beautiful. It’s just super sweet to get paid for it too. At the very least, I’m less concerned with the satisfaction of the booker, and more concerned with the satisfaction of the kids I’m making them for.”
According to Callahan, part of the beauty of making balloon animals is the ephemeral quality of the art; children’s excitement comes from the short-lived nature of their possession.
“It’s something that is supposed to provide a lot of amusement and happiness and fun. It’s supposed to be cuteness intensified. And then by the next morning, the knots have come undone and the air is out. And you’re gonna hold your ears and pop it. So I think it’s a lesson, in you know, appreciating some fleeting little happiness.”
The art of balloons can appeal to audiences beyond children.
“It also can at the same time be brought to higher levels. The same people that are out there making 10,000 balloon sculptures that cost thousands of dollars and take hundreds of hours and win grand prizes started by making poodles at a county fair. So arguably, it challenges what we understand to be art — fine art.”
This weekly column on student artists has showcased student writers, visual artists, musicians, dancers, and theatrical performers. Callahan’s work shows the expansive quality of the art on campus and the boundaries of the genre in general.
“No one really considers it art, and no one really does it. It’s just a really whimsical way of expression. But I think, by nature of what it is, a lot of people look at it and go, ‘Oh, that’s kind of self-destructive to the idea of art.’ It makes us reconsider — can blowing up balloons and making turtles be in the same category as a fine painting? I think so.”