With one assistant and a hand pump, New York artist Jason Hackenwerth spent a week in early June turning some 7,000 balloons into 13 giant sculptures commissioned for a Chicago event. Seven of them are now hanging from the ceilings at Navta Schulz. His balloon works have been attracting attention at galleries and museums in the last 18 months, but he’s been entertaining kids in restaurants and malls with smaller, more conventional balloon sculptures for years. When he was in high school his mom, a factory worker, started performing as a clown, twisting balloons in a Saint Louis mall. “I would count the money afterwards,” he says, “while she got the makeup off and scarfed down some food so she could get up at 6 AM for her job. The hard part for me was that she was coming home dressed as a clown–as a teenager, that was humiliating.” After entering Webster University as an art major in 1989, he apologized for teasing her and asked to learn the trade. After a while Hackenwerth ditched the clown outfit and went out on his own. For nearly 15 years he supported himself making balloon teddy bears, flowers, ladybug bracelets, and swords. If boys asked for specific things like Spider-Man or a Power Ranger, he says, “I’d offer to make them a ‘superturbo jet pack 3000 with dual thrusters and front handlebar controls’ instead. I’d strap it on them and warn, ‘Don’t bump your head on the moon, and if you flip out at 30,000 feet you’re road pizza.'”

Growing up in a rural Missouri trailer park, Hackenwerth didn’t see much art besides what was in the backgrounds of movies and TV shows. The 80s New York abstractions he saw inspired him to build “crazy contraptions” out of found objects in the yard. Later his art ranged from thickly painted canvases in the manner of Dubuffet to geometrical designs incised in beeswax. After receiving an MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2003, he moved to New York City. An instructor at Webster had told him years earlier that his real art was his balloon work, but Hackenwerth still considered twisting balloons in Central Park just a way to make a living.

By 2004, Hackenwerth was also doing funguslike balloon installations on subway-station walls. When the director of the Scope art fair saw them, he invited Hackenwerth to install some balloon pieces in a London hotel. The manager thought they looked like trash, however, and had them removed. “I spent two days soaking in the bathtub at night and praying,” Hackenwerth says. Unable to sleep, he had a 4 AM vision of an installation inspired by the terrorist color-alert system and spent the next six hours making a translucent box of orange balloons with red and yellow ones inside. “I was so charged,” he says. “I knew I had just connected with what I was after all this time–an image that could be suggestive of many things. It was innocently beautiful, it was overtly sexual, it was political–it was everything and nothing.”

Hackenwerth went on to create more large pieces. Though they eventually deflate, they retain some of their shape and he’s able to sell them. There are three types of creatures at Navta Schulz. Hackenwerth sees the green things, all titled Polyandromite (a play on polyandry), as somewhere between insects, lizards, and crustaceans and as having many sex partners. There’s one Nike, a large pink being he considers “the most feminine of the bunch, subversively sexual.” Swooping Gnax (which resembles a “giant puffy centipede,” he says) was inspired by Venus flytraps. “Maybe the Polyandromites and the Nike are mates, and maybe the Gnax provides some food for them,” he suggests. “But the very same Gnax might eat them if they’re not careful.”

Earlier this year a Knoll vice president saw Hackenwerth’s balloon sculptures at an event in a New York restaurant codesigned by Mies van der Rohe and asked him to create some works for a private event the furniture company was holding at IIT’s Hermann Hall, also designed by Mies, because they’d make a great contrast with its clean, modernist lines. When Hackenwerth saw the space, he says, “I knew that I wanted to create work there. I loved the enormous windows that go to the ceiling, and the gorgeous view out onto the lawn. It felt like being in a giant aquarium, which suited me very well.” Three of the 13 sculptures Knoll commissioned can still be viewed on campus (call 312-567-3707 to confirm). The school plans to display them until they’ve visibly deflated–or “expired,” as Hackenwerth says, which usually takes several months.

Jason Hackenwerth

When Through 7/8

Where Navta Schulz, 1039 W. Lake

Info 312-421-5506

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fred Camper.