As a balloon artist who travels in the same professional circles as other party entertainers, some of Ed Chee's best friends are clowns. But that doesn't mean the Valley's leading Certified Balloon Artist (CBA) likes the popular image the average Bozo has given to balloon art.
"When people think of balloons, the first image they have is of a clown at a kid's birthday party making swords," says Chee, whipping up his own twist on the clichéd party favor over afternoon coffee at the Starbucks across from Desert Ridge Marketplace, not far from where he lives. "But it's just way more advanced than that now."
Fashioning a deluxe ribbed handle at the sword base by twisting off a series of half-inch balls and bending the group back into the longer section making up the shaft, Chee says the gap between amateur and professional balloon art has gotten to where it's like "the difference between buying a print at Wal-Mart or a Picasso original. The problem is, people are not appreciating the difference in value yet."
To pop the public perception of just what can be done today with balloons -- and to give the growing worldwide community of twisters a place to meet one another and share tips and tricks -- Chee began organizing the DiamondJam conventions, first as an offshoot of the larger Clownarama in 2004, and the following year as its own specialized event.
Along with contests in Belgium, Japan and one in Austin, Chee's DiamondJam is already recognized as one of the main events of the global twister community. For this year's affair, Chee is bringing in 10 of the world's top twisting instructors, drawing talent from the U.K., Netherlands, France, Canada and the U.S.
"Every country has its own style of twisting," says Chee, the current world champ in the "detailed artistic" category, whose own work blends the precision miniaturist style associated with twisters of his Asian heritage with an American flair for whimsy. "In Belgium, they're really wild."
To kick things up a notch, Chee's also offering a $5,000 prize to the winner of the "anything goes" competition -- the largest purse ever offered at a balloon contest, he says.
"My big thing is I'd like to see twisting move up more as an art form," he says. "And the way to do that is give exposure to the people willing to stretch new ideas, if you will, way beyond people's expectations."
Already, there are legends within the twister culture. David Grist, an English twister who died of a heart attack last January, is renowned as an innovator whose most famous creation, a wearable Model T car, is often saluted at conventions in homages fashioned by devotees of his nine instructional DVDs. Provo, Utah's Marvin Hardy, scheduled to speak at DiamondJam, is another icon; his book Balloon Magic, with more than three million copies in print, has been studied, Chee says, by easily 95 percent of the people twisting today.
Chee, who supplements his income by producing twisting DVDs himself, says twisting has only recently reached its creative peak, and credits the surge to a combination of advances in balloon manufacturing ("The color palette is there now; before, you only had 10 colors") and the synergy of twisters seeing each other's work, via the Internet, DVDs and the conventions, and sharing their own unique touches and techniques.
"The skill level has gone up like crazy," he says. "But there's still these guys out there who are promulgating the myth that it's all just simple dogs and swords."
Pulling a few vibrantly colored balloons from the 4,000 stuffed into his apron -- "I go through 20,000 balloons a month," he says -- Chee spends about seven minutes blowing and twisting multiple balloons into what eventually emerges as a Disney-worthy princess, complete with a fetching painted-on face and overinflated cleavage heaving out over her light-blue dress. "I live in Scottsdale," he quips. "That's all I ever see!"
Across the Starbucks, a well-dressed woman eyes Chee's creation and approaches him to ask for a business card, tentatively booking him for an upcoming party at Anthem. Chee winks and says that's the only way the more advanced twisters can draw in people willing to pay the extra hundred dollars or so over the average clown's going rate.
"You can't pick out a twister from the phone book," he says. "But when you're out working in a restaurant and people get to see for themselves what your capabilities are, that's what sells them.
"Most people are blown away," he adds, smiling at the intentional pun, "when they see something really phenomenal done with balloons."