And whether it’s a child asking for a sea horse or a corporate client requesting large, decorative balloon sculptures, managing expectations is key. “I always say to underpromise and overdeliver,” Routh explains. That’s something Thad James, another St. Louis artist who’s been twisting for 14 years, has plenty of experience with — like the time he built a balloon installation for an insurance company’s national convention gala. The event had a Beatles theme, and instead of making just one sculpture, James (with a little help from his friends, of course) built four 18-foot balloon structures, including a yellow submarine, an octopus’ garden and replicas of the Fab Four’s instruments — all in less than three days. “The client was worried we wouldn’t finish on time, and the best part was seeing how amazed they looked by how quickly we put everything together,” he says.

It doesn’t end with parties, though. Todd Neufeld, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based balloon artist and founder of Twisted Balloon Company, was once commissioned by Jerry Seinfeld’s TV show The Marriage Ref to build a life-size balloon woman for people to throw knives at. And when the Maury show came calling for an episode all about unusual phobias, Neufeld was asked to make sculptures for a woman who was deathly afraid of balloons. “At the beginning of the show, she was scared. But by the end, her phobia was cured and she was wearing balloon hats,” Neufeld says. Both James and Maheux have also helped put together haunted-mansion balloon exhibits large enough for people to actually walk through, and James has built balloon gardens complete with flowers, waterfalls, fountains and ponds for home-and-garden shows. Surprisingly, though, no matter how much work James puts into a project, he doesn’t feel that attached to it once it’s complete. “People always ask, ‘What will you do with this once it’s over?’ We’re going to pop the balloons. That’s what balloons do — they’re a temporary art form that aren’t built to last forever,” he says. It’s the creative process — rather than admiring the final product after the fact — that many balloon artists find the most meaningful.

Despite the fact their sculptures fall flat after just a few days, balloon artists can still build things with long-lasting impact. Since 2008, Neufeld has been twisting balloons at the White House for military members and their families during an annual United Service Organizations event. And after receiving a fellowship from the Regional Arts Commission, which pairs artists with social workers to create art for social change, Routh began working with inner-city youths at local juvenile-detention centers. He also regularly helps with charity events for animal rescues, military families and literacy programs. He has even performed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “I don’t peddle in balloons, I peddle in good feelings. And if I can make a moment of magic, that’s what people will remember,” he says. 

MARYGRACE TAYLOR is an Austin, Texas–based writer whose work has appeared in Redbook and Prevention. As a child, she thought helium-filled balloons that were released into the sky would float to Balloon Heaven.