Photo courtesy of Drew RipleyCoding adds new twist to balloon artist’s craft Kayleigh Platz June 24, 2015 Ecosystem, Tech About Town You may have made a new friend at the Communitech Hub last week. Harris, the 10-foot tall balloon-sculpture goat moved in on Thursday. On Saturday, she was carefully walked up the street to Communitech’s Summer Lights Festival location on King Street in Kitchener. That evening, Harris was the star of the show. She showed up in our photo booth, and received hugs from children and adults alike. Harris’ maker, balloon artist Drew Ripley, was also on hand. Along with creating Harris, Ripley fashioned an LED-lit, balloon Pac Man game for the space at the old Entertaining Elements on King Street. Ripley and Communitech shared the space with Kwartzlab and the Maker Expo. Our conversation, during brief breaks from the Summer Lights crowds, turned towards how Ripley became a professional balloon artist. Like many a good story, his begins in Las Vegas. His family went on a trip to see the Grand Canyon when he was 10 years old. His parents took him to see some Vegas magic shows, including David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy. Ripley was hooked. Back home, he began to study magic. Growing up in Collingwood, Ont. — pre-internet — he was mainly self-taught. “Magic kits, a unicycle, and balloon kits started showing up at my house,” he said. “I was 11 when I did my first paid magic performance.” He dabbled with magic through high school and university. While it was a passion, he never considered it a career option. After he graduated from the University of Waterloo as an English major with a minor in fine arts, Ripley worked in communications for a biofuels business. Then the recession happened in 2008. While Ripley watched the company he worked for shut down, he realized he had a chance to re-invent himself. He decided to follow his passion, which led back to twisting balloons into imaginative shapes. Today, Ripley runs his own balloon-art company. He twists balloons into animals at children’s parties, but he also entertains at corporate events (such as Summer Lights, where he made Communitech’s goat sculpture) as well as weddings, large-scale international team events and competitions. Whether entertaining children, decorating for a wedding, or working as part of a team doing a large-scale build (using more than 10,000 balloons on one project) Ripley always looks for the emotion in the pieces he creates. “That’s what balloons are to me,” he said. “They are creating a memory, a brief moment of time, where we get to do something fantastic.” While Ripley is an artist drawing on his fine-arts degree for inspiration, he has also become a maker and inventor out of necessity. “We’re a small industry,” he said. “There are only 1,000 to 2,000 professional balloon artists on the planet.” There aren’t a lot of equipment options in the industry, and what exists isn’t quite keeping up with changing times. “We had to invent — that’s just all there is to it,” he said. Larry Moss, the head of Airigami, the team Ripley works with on large-scale international balloon exhibits, invented a tool called the inflatenator to control air valves and regulate the consistency and speed of blowing up balloons. As the product became more complex, Moss and Ripley began to code a program that helped the tool. “The coding become more than we could handle, and that’s when Kwartzlab came into play,” Ripley said. The two men walked in during a Tuesday-night open house and met some members. By the end of the evening, they had hired a coder. They’ve been working on the product for almost a year and now have a beta unit in the hands of some users. “What kind of balloon artist did you ever imagine would need to know how to code?” Ripley said. “That’s the reality now. I know enough about code that I can look at something and say this is where the problem is. I wish I knew more about coding, but I’m learning. You bring in the experts for a reason, because you can’t know absolutely everything.” While Ripley is an artist and a maker, he realizes his art is temporary. Balloon art is not meant to be permanent. The balloons he uses are latex-based and naturally decompose at the same rate as an oak leaf. “My house isn’t filled with my art, but it’s still in my mind,” he said. He may soon have a solution: Ripley is working with Kwartzlab to try to make mini 3D-printed replicas of his balloon sculptures. *** School’s out for the summer this week. Make sure to get out and celebrate this weekend! I see and hear that . . . This Friday, June 26, is FUNtario Friday. Head to Ontario Street in downtown Kitchener, between King Street and Weber Street to play, shop and be entertained. The event is free and runs 6–11 p.m . . . This Saturday, June 27, is the first School’s Out KW! The fundraising event at Chicopee Ski Club runs 3-10 p.m. and features food trucks, live music and family activities. Proceeds will send local kids to a weeklong camp at Chicopee. Tickets are $5 per person, or $20 for a family pass admitting up to six people . . . Kitchener Waterloo Access Ability’s first golf tournament is this Monday, June 29. Tee-off is 1 p.m. The tournament is $175 for a team of four, and includes a golf cart and dinner at the Galt Country Club, 750 Coronation Blvd., Cambridge. All proceeds will go to KW Access Ability.