Updated: March 16, 2014 at 11:29 pm
Follow your dreams, even if they're kind of strange. Embrace your passion, even if it might pop.
Gary Jones says it with balloons.
He used to not say it at all, back when he was a career Air Force man, a Desert Storm veteran working a high security job inside the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. But then his career path took an unexpected twist.
Jones was born in California and grew up in Florida and Texas, the state to which he returned after serving overseas in the Air Force, helping launch fighter jets during the Gulf War. In Texas, he transitioned to a less dangerous civil engineering role, and then moved to Colorado to handle equipment and infrastructure maintenance inside the mountain. When he came to the Springs in 1994, he brought along his newfound "pocket magic" hobby. On the job, during down time between equipment checks, he would entertain co-workers with the basic card, coin and sleight-of-hand tricks he'd picked up hanging out at a Texas magic shop.
"It was something different and it was a lot of fun. I had a skill they didn't," the 46-year-old said.
Bringing smiles to people's faces
There was more to performing than the appeal of being center stage, even for a man who'd spent most of his life behind the scenes. The tricks were fun and challenging. They also seemed to brighten people's moods.
"Maybe somebody had a bad day and you show them a simple magic trick in the grocery store line and it brings them a little relief and a smile," said Jones, who became a regular at Zeezo's costume and novelty shop in Colorado Springs.
Zeezo's owner Mark Modeer remembers those early years when Jones would stop in every payday to buy a new magic trick, then hang around to talk shop with a core group of regulars.
"He was just a good customer and liked magic a lot," said Modeer, who in 1995 hired Jones part time at the store.
There, Jones met magic shop employee Ivan Rockey, a yarn-spinning jokester - and son of beloved Manitou Springs artist Charles Rockey - who had a side gig entertaining at children's birthday parties, something Jones was just getting into. When Rockey first suggested Jones beef up his repertoire with balloons, Jones couldn't cue up the proper visual.
"I thought he was talking about just doing games with balloons, with prizes," Jones said. "I'd never even seen a balloon animal."
Learning the art
Balloon creatures did not roam the plains of Jones' childhood. He'd certainly never considered a career in them. Why would he? He wasn't the scion of artists or clowns, and it's not like The Balloon Council sets up inflatable tables at job fairs.
Jones was intrigued. Are the balloons round? Can you only make animals?
"There's a lot more to it than that," Rockey told him, then demonstrated by blowing up one of the shop's long, skinny modeling balloons especially manufactured to withstand contortions. He went to work, bending and twisting it into the form of a dog. When Jones gave it a try, he discovered he didn't have the lung or diaphragm strength to inflate the balloon; he had to use a pump. That first single-balloon creation was a "sad" dog with no two legs the same length.
Jones was nonetheless hooked. The idea of creating something from almost nothing - a piece of rubber that holds air - got his imagination churning in new and inspiring directions. With magic tricks, he was locked into a specific routine where variables were a potential deadfall. Variety, though, was the life breath of balloon art.
"Magic can get boring. With balloons, you're only limited by your imagination. You can take one balloon and go in 300 different directions," Jones said. "Ivan introduced me to balloons and I was like, 'Yeah, this is it. This is what I want to do.'"
Rockey, who lost his battle with leukemia in 2008, was Jones' "balloon mentor" as well as his best friend.
"If I hadn't met him and become friends with him, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," Jones said.
Developing lungs of steel
To the neophyte, blowing up a modeling balloon is like trying to yodel through a cocktail straw: the stuff of blackouts and aneurysms. After a few months' practice, though, Jones had perfected the proper technique, forcing air in a quick, solid burst from the diaphragm. Gone were the light-headedness and pounding headaches. His personal best inflation time stands at 2 seconds, impressive speed even for a pro.
"My lungs got stronger and stronger," said Jones, who celebrated the skill with a fresh email address: email@example.com. "Now it doesn't bother me at all to blow up 1,000 balloons over a weekend."
Jones, who is a bachelor with no children of his own, loved the instant joy and wonder his creations evoked in youngsters. Kids weren't the only ones. Moms got balloon jewelry; dads, balloon hats.
As for the art of twisting itself, Jones inhaled everything he could, from books, DVDs and from other benders themselves. He mastered single-balloon designs and moved on to multiples, learning techniques and tricks that would let him create wearable costumes and large- and small-scale architectural elements and models. He's made a balloon aircraft carrier, complete with planes and command cube, a 6-foot tall Frankenstein's monster and a balloon Eiffel Tower. One winter, he made himself a balloon Christmas tree.
"It's an endless learning curve to always up what you're doing so you're not just doing the same 10 or 12 things all the time," said Jones, who started attending World Balloon Conventions in 2005 and plans to compete in the figure competition at this year's event, which kicks off March 26 in Denver. "I will also be participating in all the classes that I possibly can to increase my knowledge."
Known for his dedication
Jones' fellow party entertainers marvel at his focus and dedication to balloons, atypical in an industry where performers often must don a range of goofy hats, from ventriloquism to juggling to clowning.
"I would describe his passion as near relentless. He's as happy learning about a single balloon as he is a balloon archway. If you show him a new dog, it will make his day," Modeer said.
Five years ago, Jones stopped seeking work as an electrician and went full time as "Magic Man." The following year, in 2010, he was named the city's top balloon artist in Best of the Springs. He goes through more than 35,000 balloons a year entertaining at private birthday parties, community events and festivals, or working the room at a handful of regular weekly gigs at local restaurants, inflating on-demand for young fans who often end up competing to stump him with their outlandish requests.
He has been asked to make everything from a two-headed alien riding a T-rex (with a light saber in her hand) to an alligator (with a dead monkey in its mouth) to a leaf-blower.
"So far, the leaf-blower and Bigfoot are the only two things I've not been able to come up with," Jones said. "Bigfoot I said I couldn't make because nobody's ever seen it."
For more about the balloon art of Gary Jones, visit magicman balloonsco.com
Read more about the World Balloon Convention, March 26-30 in Denver, at world balloonconvention.com