Jeff Pearlman

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Marcial Gutierrez

#192
We met him at a diner in San Diego. He was twisting balloons and making animals and people and cars and stuff. I thought, "What kind of dude twists balloons and makes animals and people and cars and stuff?" The answer: A really fascinating one. POSTED February 3, 2015

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When we first moved to California a bunch of months back, we took the kids on a trip to the San Diego Zoo, then stopped off at a diner for dinner. It was a place called Corvette’s, and it featured video games, singing waitresses, thicker-than-thick milkshakes and—most important—a dude walking table to table, making creations from balloons.

My son and daughter saw Marcial Gutierrez as grand entertainment.

I immediately saw him as perfect Quaz material.

Why perfect? Well, because he’s a balloon artist. And what’s more quirky and cool than that? So I asked the man for his business card and, well, here we are. Glorious Quaz No. 192.

Turns out Marcial is an amazing man with an amazing story and an amazing talent. He’ll make pretty much anything, he’d gladly work for Celine Dion and he even sorta believes in love at first sight. You can visit his website here.

Marcial Gutierrez, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Marcial, so I’ve seen you do balloon animals, and you’re extremely talented. Which leads me to ask: Balloon animals? Like, how does one think to himself, “You know what I’d really like to do? Make balloon animals?” Why do you do it? How did the idea first enter your head?

MARCIAL GUTIERREZ: My entry into the twisted world of balloon art was mainly an act of desperation. Seven years ago I was a struggling independent filmmaker trying to earn a living working freelance gigs and odd jobs, while attempting to get some film projects off the ground. But doors starting closing for me left and right: a mentorship program at an indie filmmakers’ fellowship in LA had just wrapped up without bearing any fruits for my career in show biz. Also, I had just finished shooting a pilot scene for a feature script I had written, but our main financier/producer dropped the project after he realized we were working on an over-the-top gory zombie comedy flick. My only steady gigs were filming weddings and pretending to be an Iraqi insurgent for a local movie studio that had a deal with the U.S. military running hyper-realistic combat simulations for the USMC. But that dried up once the studio moved beyond hiring ambiguously brown actors capable of yelling gibberish to actual Arabic-speaking role players.

Broke and a bit hopeless, I began to doubt my capacities as an artist. But then I encountered balloon twisting through one of my friends in the entertainment industry, a woman who was an aspiring actress and singer, who also earned her money working multiple gigs. Among the many talents she possessed was balloon twisting; I think she learned to do it while she was in college getting her degree in theater. She taught me the basics of both balloon twisting and working at a restaurant for tips, and later introduced me to other people who did it more “professionally”.

I thought I became a balloon twister because of the money that one can make doing this. My motivation, at least initially, was the people who I knew were making pretty good money working as balloon artists. But I truly enjoyed twisting balloons from day one, and I discovered that I wasn’t half bad at it either. After about a month of twisting balloons something happened. I wasn’t happy with the cookie cutter shapes and designs that I was taught. I wanted to make my own designs, invent my own new shapes. And I did. After a few months of starting, I had a few designs of my own, much to the surprise of the more established balloon twisters. In my first year of balloon twisting I caught up to the guys who had been around for five or six years, and in some cases I was actually twisting more intricate things that they were. I felt pride as an artist again. So quickly I realized that I became, and remained, a balloon twister not because of the money, but because balloons became my new medium for artistic expression. After having so many doors close in my face as an indie filmmaker I needed to feel like an artist again. I needed it bad. So I put down the film camera and picked up the bag of balloons. Oh, and by the way, the money’s not bad either.

J.P.: What does it take to be great at making balloon animals? I mean, I’ve seen many shit balloon animal makers who twist and turn and deliver crap. What separates the good from the bad and the great from the good?

M.G.: Well, at this point I would say I do more than just “balloon animals.” I can make almost anything out of balloons. But yeah, when I first started I was hesitant to pick up the craft because I thought all there was to “balloon twisting” was the easy, one-balloon dog we’re all used to seeing. What really got me hooked on balloon art were the really intricate creations that I saw coming out of conventions and competitions; only then did I realize that I wasn’t getting into a craft, per se, but rather an art form.

What does it take to be great at balloon twisting? I don’t know first-hand, since I wouldn’t call myself great at it. I think greatness is relative and I’ve seen some truly amazing creations that make me realize how much more I have yet to learn. But I think it takes the same as in any other art form: it’s part a person’s own innate ability to see the world a bit differently, and part learned skill. In my case I love to draw as well. I’m not that good at it, but I love to draw and paint. I realized early on that if I could draw something off the top of my head I could also make it out of balloons. Sounds weird, but if I can draw something I can also break it down into the several steps necessary to make that something into a balloon shape. I was never taught how to do this. This strange ability was just there from day one. Over time, however, I’ve been learning different techniques like pinching, twisting and weaving balloons in different ways to make my designs look better.

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J.P.: So I’m a kid. You ask what I want and I say, “A sea horse! I love sea horses.” You’ve presumably never made one. How do you then go about creating?

M.G.: (Laughs) I’ve actually made many seahorses before, Jeff. And other more bizarre sea creatures like crabs, narwhals and squids! I hate saying “no” when I’m twisting balloons, so depending on how busy we are at the restaurant, I may decline to twist your request. But say your parents hired me to come out to your birthday party and I have plenty of time, I will attempt to make your requested balloon. If I can’t twist it off the top of my head, I do a Google Image search on my phone for your request and twist it off of that image. It’s actually a lot of fun to accept these challenges, under the right setting, because I feel like I get to put on more of a show, since people are watching to see if I can deliver or not.

J.P.: We met you at Corvette’s, a restaurant in San Diego. I’ve gotta think 50 percent of people either don’t know to tip you or simply don’t tip you. Be 100% honest: How much does that piss you off? And are there subtle ways of dropping hints?

M.G.: Yeah, that’s always a problem. It generally doesn’t affect me that much. It does, however, if I’m having a slow month and I got no private parties for that weekend. Or if I’m having a bad night and non-tipping becomes a trend, then it’ll get to me. But generally people are good and they like taking care of the balloon guy. As to my strategy to drop hints, I generally just use phrases like “Are you interested in getting balloons for anyone that you’re taking care of?” By me emphasizing “interested” and “taking care of” I’m generally successful in prompting people to ask whether the balloons have a cost, to which I reply, “There is absolutely no cost, but I’ll accept a tip if you like my work”.

J.P.: What’s your story, womb to now? How’d you get here? What’s the ultimate goal?

M.G.: I’m a native of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. I was born in Tijuana, Mexico into a family that is scattered on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. I grew up in both San Diego and Tijuana, speaking Spanglish and going to school here and there, but eventually ended up feeling much more at home on the U.S. side of things. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a hyperactive imagination, much to the chagrin of my parents. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sleepwalk or act out my dreams in my sleep until everyone was awake, which must’ve sucked for my dad who had to wake up at 4 in the morning for work. That went away as I grew up. When I became a teenager, I skated the streets of Tijuana and had dreams of starting a punk band with my middle-school buddies. But I wasn’t a punk rocker. I was a straight-A student, graduated from International Baccalaureate in high school and Outstanding Senior of my class in college. But graduating from college wasn’t easy. I changed majors five times: international business, liberal arts, English, TV and film production and finally settled on political science. Now I’m a graduate student working on an M.A. in Public Policy, a former filmmaker and a balloon artist.

I ended up marrying my first girlfriend. We met back in middle school and had a short-lived, puppy love thing that I was never able to shake off as time went on. We just held hands. I never mustered up the courage to kiss her. We didn’t see each other for 13 years but found each other on Facebook three years ago. We started going on dates and pretty soon we were back together. However, I made sure that I kissed her this time.

For now I’m focused on finishing my M.A., doing a job as teaching assistant at San Diego State University, being a good husband and continuing to twist balloons. We don’t have any plans to start a family yet, since my wife is also working on getting her graduate degree in clinical psychology, but maybe in a few years I’ll add “father” to the labels I wear.

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J.P.: You mentioned attending some balloon animal conventions where guys just, “go crazy.” What does that mean? What do y’all talk about? And who is the average person in your profession? Like, is there a profile?

M.G.: Going crazy means twisting anlife-sized jazz quartet entirely out of balloons. Or weaving an entire collection of night gowns out of balloons and hiring models to show them off on a runway. That’s going crazy. Also, some of these conventions host a 24-hour jam room, usually a conference hall or ballroom in the hotel where the convention is taking place, where one can just walk into at any hour and twist away. You’d think that people would want to sleep at night so that they can have all the energy to attend the workshops during the day, but no, some of these people are maniacs and pound can after can of energy drink in order to stay awake and twist balloons as much as they can. Because these conventions attract all the best twisters in the world, they’re a great place to learn new tricks, so sleeping is often seen as a waste of time.

There is also a lot of drinking. Man, can balloon twisters drink. That’s why we don’t blow up the balloons ourselves anymore and use pumps now; the breath inside the balloon is highly flammable! Joking aside, I have seen the most impressively assorted miniature bars at balloon conventions. At one convention I attended, there was this older guy who pulled a full bartender set out of his briefcase, complete with shaker, martini glasses and a respectable amount of vodka.

J.P.: You’re doing a balloon animal for some spoiled dickhead kid. He’s gross, snot dripping from his nostrils, awful parents. You hand him the panda you took 10 minutes making, he screams, “That sucks! Make another!” Mom says, “Make another!” What do you do? And what is your worst moment as a balloon guy?

M.G.: Before suspending my disbelief in order to immerse myself fully in that scenario, I’d like to tell you Jeff that if I took 10 minutes working on a panda no kid ever would scream, “That sucks!” (Laughs) That sculpture would actually be Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants in a mid-swing pose. Well, if that kid were a Kansas City Royals fan then yeah, he’d probably scream, “That’s awful, make another!”

I’m not gonna lie, I would probably be pissed as hell, so I would assume that the hardest part would be just keeping my cool. What would I do? I probably wouldn’t make him another. I’d just apologize and move on. I mean, I usually work at very busy places where there’s either a line or people waiting at their tables to get a balloon, so taking additional time to make a second balloon for a bratty child is just not possible. I’d try to make him a lightsaber or something quick and easy so that at least he gets another balloon, but I would not take a fancy request.

My worst moments as a balloon guy come when I get hired to work at parks. I HATE TWISTING BALLOONS AT PARKS. There’s a lot going on and kids are usually running around not taking care of their balloon creations. It can get a bit windy and a sudden draft can just take a balloon away from a child’s hand. But what’s worse is that parks are covered in the No. 1 enemy of balloons: grass. There’s nothing worse that spending 10 minutes on a panda that a child absolutely adored only to watch it pop into deformity a few seconds later as it lands on grass. If the child hated the panda than at least he gets a kick out of watching it explode. But when a little cutie thing bursts into tears because the balloon slipped out of her hands and popped on the blades of grass, that breaks my heart, Jeff (cue the violins).

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J.P.: How does your mind work as you’re creating? With as much detail as possible, can you explain what goes through your head?

M.G.: So it all begins with an image pulled from the Internet. Whenever I’m figuring out how to do something for the first time, I’ll usually do a Google search from an image that I’ll leave on the computer screen the entire time. I usually work top to bottom. I’ll start with the head (if it has a head) and work my way down to the feet. I carry different sizes of twisting balloons, so depending on how large I want the sculpture to be that will determine the gauge of the balloons that I’ll end up using. There are several basic techniques one needs to know, like pinching and lock twisting, and more advanced techniques, such as double stuffing or weaving balloons, that go into creating specific shapes and structures. I haven’t invented any weave patterns yet, so what I know I’ve learned from the pioneering balloon artists who’ve created most of the basic techniques used by all of us in the field.

After staring at the image for long enough, I’ll start breaking down the subject into  a version of itself composed of basic geometric shapes, similar to the way people are taught to draw. Balloons aren’t polygons; they don’t have sides or angles, but you can then check to see if the subject has broken into a shape containing any circles or ellipses. You can start with those. Usually limbs are the easiest to make, because all you need is a straight balloon with some hands attached to them at the end and a pinch twist to attach to the shoulder. After you’ve worked on the rounder parts of a subject, then you can proceed to make the more angular parts of it, by twisting the balloons into segments and adding lock twists to hold them in place. This technique allows you to replicate geometric shapes that can then be added to the sculpture as separate components.

It all sounds so precise and mathematical, but it really isn’t. In no way am I an balloon egghead. The process described above goes on entirely in my head. I don’t take any notes, nor do I keep track of everything I do. I usually improvise and twist without knowing where I’ll end up. It’s the same way I like to paint or draw; I’ll put on some of my favorite music, and if I’m up for it, I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and twist.

I’m a little impatient and somewhat of a perfectionist, so every time I do something new, I’m determined to get it right the first time. This has brought me a great deal of frustration, since as with any art, there is a lot of trial and error involved with balloon twisting. I’m still learning this lesson, despite my seven years as a balloon artist. So whenever I twist something for the first time, it ends up becoming the beta version of whatever it is I’m trying to make.  I’ll usually end up spotting two or three things that I would like to do differently, make a note of that and try again. I usually get it right by the second or third time around.

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J.P.: You’re at a restaurant, taking requests. Someone says, “Can you make a penis?” Or, “Tits” Or anything like that. Do you give it your best shot? Insist you can’t? Are there such things as dirty balloon creations?

M.G.: No, I will not make “body parts” when I’m at a restaurant, not  because I have a moral code that dictates “balloons are supposed to be clean,” but because of common sense. Most places I work at are family-friendly joints, so I have to politely decline requests of penis hats. I have, however, gotten hired to work a few adult parties outside of the restaurant circuit where I’ve twisted all sorts of body parts from 10 at night until about 2 in the morning, for all kinds of drunk guests. I enjoy adult parties to a degree; they’re a good change of scene from the usual children’s parties but they’re actually harder to work. It’s actually easier to entertain a bratty child than it is to entertain the thirty-something-year-old with a sharp tongue who’s on her fourth rum and Coke. That’s because adult parties are so few and far between that I’ve lost some of my edge and witty comebacks. As a result, I do end up taking quite a bit of abuse sometimes (laughs).

J.P.: Why do you think more people aren’t freaked out by the potential eternal nothingness that accompanies death?

M.G.: Because I think most people don’t associate death with an eternal nothingness. To most people death is about an eternal something; an eternal existence where all the wrongs of life will be corrected.  But If you think about it, which I have—and plenty of times, for that matter—both ideas sounds terrifying. To think that we’ll potentially return to the state we were in before we were born, or to an eternal fate as decided by a deity are enough to make one lose sleep at night.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARCIAL GUTIERREZ:

Celine Dion calls. She wants to hire you as her personal balloon artist. You’ll make $5 million next year, but you have to move to Las Vegas, sleep in a crib, eat only cranberries and sausage and get a tattoo of a ketchup bottle on your thigh. You in?: I’m in as long as the ketchup bottle is one of those Heinz 57 old-school bottles. I’ll just have my wife get a matching tattoo of a french fry on her thigh.

• Who are your five all-time favorite actresses?: Gloria Swanson, she scared me to death as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Sigourney Weaver is amazing and has been in some of my favorite films, like the Alien franchise and Ghostbusters. I’m also a fan of Scarlett Johansson; I think she’s crazy talented and her performance alongside Bill Murray in Lost in Translation made me develop a fanboy crush on her for a little while.

• What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen made from balloons?: A life-sized Xenomorph alien from the Ridley Scott Alien movie. Who knew H.R. Giger’s stuff would translate so well as a balloon sculpture?

• If I’m eating at Corvette’s, what’s the one thing I should order? And shouldn’t?: Get the Rory Burger, it’s got bacon and peanut butter! Stay away from the salads, not because they’re bad, but because they’re salads. I mean, you’re at the Corvette Diner man, so when in Rome…

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Yelp, mushrooms, Anaheim, Joni Mitchell, Bar Mitzvahs, Trader Joes, Tom Cruise, Bella Thorne, Colt McCoy, Anthony Bourdain, OutKast, Power Rangers, your feet: 1. My Feet (As long as they’re covered in a pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars); 2. Anaheim (one of my guilty pleasures is visiting Disneyland); 3. Trader Joes (It’s sort of a somewhat-poor-man’s version of Whole Foods); 4. Mushrooms (they’re good on steak); 5. Anthony Bourdain (doesn’t he have the best job ever?); 6. Power Rangers (I’m more of a Ninja Turtles guy, but PRs were cool for while); 6. OutKast (I’m sorry Ms. Jackson, I am for reeeeaaalll); 7. Joni Mitchell (I’ve heard she’s iconic, but I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t heard too much of her music); 8. Yelp (it’s helped me make improved decisions as a consumer, but I’m not on it); 9. Bar Mitzvahs (Never been to one. I grew up in Tijuana and San Diego’s South Bay so I never had any Jewish friends growing up. Been to plenty of quinceañeras though.); 10. Colt McCoy (I’m not a huge NFL guy); 11. Bella Thorne (Don’t know who she is); 12. Tom Cruise (Um, because Tom Cruise)

• Do you believe in love at first sight?: Kind of. Love at first sight is such an improbable thing though, it’s a rare natural occurrence, sorta of like an eclipse. All the stars need to line up in order for that first eye contact to evolve into this thing we call love. I believe in infatuation at first sight though, that’s easy to do. Love, on the other hand, takes time and effort.

 • I’m 42. Be honest—in your mind is that old, really old or ancient?: Not at all. I think we gauge how old someone is based on how well we can relate to them. People in their 40s have awesome taste in music for example. Some of my friends who are in their 40s have gotten me into really cool music from the 70s and 80s, like Bon Scott-era AC/DC and old-school punk rock. No so Jeff, you’re cool.

• We just moved to Southern California. Gimme three places we absolutely have to go: I appreciate odd and unusual places, so I would recommend that you visit the Salton Sea. It’s got three different spots to visit, all within close proximity of each other: Bombay Beach, Salvation Mountain and Slab City. The only “touristy” spot on the list is Salvation Mountain. In case you’ve never heard of it, it is a giant work of folk art. It’s basically a climbable hill covered in religious messages brushed on with thousands of gallons of paint. Bombay Beach and Slab City, on the other hand, are actual communities so I wouldn’t suggest showing up like a nosy tourist. Instead try to grab a sandwich or a beer and get to talk to some of the locals.

• I hate Ariana Grande’s music. In exactly 17 words, defend her: I haven’t heard her yet. She’s gotta be so good her stuff is by invitation only.

• Best birthday gift you’ve ever received: A birthday cake shaped like the face of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I love Ninja Turtles!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life