Art history is often presented as the genius works of a few “great men.” This is terribly misleading though. No artist creates in a vacuum. They all have mentors, teachers, inspirations, apprentices, and very often, collaborators. This narrative also hides the fact that one of the amazing aspects of being an artist is collaborating with other artists on projects that you would never have imagined being involved in.

Recently, a few of us here at MAL had the delight of being pulled into an extremely unexpected project.

Drew Ripley is a professional balloon artist (Yes, that is a real job. Yes, you can be that when you grow up). I first met Drew when he taught a few of us to make simple balloon animals for an event, and we proceeded immediately to abuse that new-found power to make balloon genitalia, but I digress.

Because of that fateful meeting, I had the pleasure of helping with a recent project of Drew’s which pulled in a host of artists and experts, and I would like to share the glorious oddness that came out of it.

A challenge for any artist is to differentiate themselves from other artists. Anyone can make a balloon dog, or flower, or phallus, but how do you stand out from the crowd?

Drew had an idea, to build a costume and wearable balloon sculpture that children and adults could interact with, and would be engaging and completely unusual. The plan was to make an ostrich, a rideable ten-foot ostrich that would burp, and laugh, and nibble, and dance. Drew had a vision, but not all of the requisite expertise.

Over the course of its design and construction, Drew consulted with a host of other artists and creators, and we all got to share in the pride of the final creation.

Our own Charles helped to find tools that would work to give Drew control over the mouth and eyes of the ostrich. Ravi helped refine the mechanics. The first iteration was amazing, but relied on Drew having superhuman strength and endurance to keep the ostrich going over the course of a full event, so I was pulled in to help beef it up and make it more wearable.

A collection of other creators from our local makerspace, Kwartzlab, contributed as well:

Agnes helped develop a saddle that Drew could step into and wear like a belt.

Gertrude and Toyota 009

And Paul helped create a sound board that could be used to give the ostrich voice. It was programmed with laughs and burps and sneezes.


And Drew’s partner, Linda, helped with design and construction of the balloon portion of the costume.

Finally, Jim, our resident book nerd, ended up being the key photographer at Gertrude’s debut event.

It’s a bit of an ordeal to create and put on as you can see…

Gertrude and Toyota 003Gertrude and Toyota 019Gertrude and Toyota 028Gertrude 034a


But the final effect is amazing…

Gertrude 250a

Drew as the puppeteer almost disappears behind the smiling and animated face of Gertrude, and the ten foot, 25 pound, bouncing, bubbly, balloon ostrich comes to life.

Gertrude 184a Gertrude 474aGertrude 481a

I want to thank Drew for letting us play with him. Gertrude is positively delightful, and I’m proud to be one of her many parents.

Also, if you think that Gertrude is amazing, check out what happens when 73 balloon artists get together to truly collaborate on a project. Drew just finished up a week in New York helping to twist 40,000 balloons into a six story sculpture:


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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