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'Pop' culture includes art with, yes, balloons

In a global contest, a couple rise to the occasion, nudging out a giant Elvis and an opera singer.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000

PINELLAS PARK -- This month in Las Vegas, Pinellas Park residents Joseph and Julia Shanabarger were part of a 10-person team that worked for 27 hours straight to turn 5,000 balloons into a "sculpture" titled The Rainbow Bridge.

They took second place in the International Balloon Arts Convention Large Sculpture Competition. This event, the convention's 16th annual one, is a big deal for people who make art out of balloons.

The 20-foot by 20-foot sculpture featured an enormous rainbow, swan boats, four kittens and floating white clouds.

First prize was awarded to a team from Japan that created a Komodo dragon. There also was a giant Elvis, an opera singer and a humongous cello. The pieces had to be rendered entirely in balloons -- other than a wire framework and a tiny amount of foam for shaping.

According to Julia Shanabarger, the most challenging aspect of these large pieces is proportion and symmetry in the balloons. Balloons are inflated using a carefully metered air machine to achieve a uniform size.

Four years ago she began shopping for a new career that would allow her to be creative and work from home so she would have more time for her two children.

One weekend at a home business expo in Tampa, her husband found a man selling balloon creation distributorships and realized he was on to something.

"My husband said, "Come back here. You need to look at this,' " Julia Shanabarger said. "This fits your personality. . . . You can do it out of your home. It's perfect."

Thus was born Amazing Events with Balloons Etc. Starting with small pieces and bouquets, she has worked up to ballroom columns, school buses large enough to walk through, gingerbread boys, snowmen, airplanes and big gray Republican elephants (for Gov. Jeb Bush's party after the local debate).

The couple has had to build an expansion onto their home just to house the equipment and supplies for their burgeoning business. The addition also allows her a space to show clients the dozen or so scrapbooks filled with her decorations and sculptures.

He works as a software trainer but helps out with the four to five sculptures needed every weekend and is taking courses to help him join the aesthetic part of the team. The couple plan to return to the International Balloon Convention next year and build a sculpture of their own design.

Both husband and wife agree that their biggest balloon creativity test so far has been "The James Bond Bar Mitzvah," designed for a boy who really loves the character.

"That was challenging," Joseph Shanabarger said. "Neither of us are into James Bond, so we had a marathon of watching James Bond movies to get ideas."

In the end, the hall was decorated with Bond's signature gadgets, martini glasses and just about everything else Bond, built up in balloon sculpture. The sign-in board featured a photograph of the boy celebrating his bar mitzvah in the center of the James Bond signature camera shutter pose.

Julia and Joseph did their first bat mitzvah for Pam Himmel's daughter.

"I have referred them to everyone I know because they're just so incredibly creative," Himmel said.

In September, the Shanabargers will create a fairyland at the reception hall of Congregation B'nai Israel for Himmel's youngest daughter's bat mitzvah.

"The best thing about my job is that you're always making someone happy. You're always making their day," Julia Shanabarger said.

The only job the couple has ever walked away from was a sculpture order for a nudist colony. They have a number of teenagers who assist them and just weren't sure whether they should take them to work at a clothing-optional community.

Alas, balloon sculptures don't last forever.

Even their colossal Vegas rainbow had to come down. She said pins were passed out, and after the crew got to work, "It sounded just like popcorn cooking."

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