Professional Clowning is Serious Business
Colony Square, in the heart of Midtown’s business district, is going through some changes. The insides are soon to be demolished and renovated starting this summer. This has allowed for a unique opportunity. Through a partnership with the Hambidge Center, an artist’s residency program located in North Georgia, local artists have been allowed to transform the empty storefront spaces into large immersive art installations.
The Hambidge Center was started in 1934 by Mary Hambidge, a former vaudeville performer, who decided to create a space where she could house her new passion for weaving after her partner Jay Hambidge died in 1924. In time she started hiring local women to weave and went on to have pieces in the Smithsonian as well as MOMA. Her passion didn’t pertain to only weaving but to all other types of art, and as the Center grew so did the various types of artists. The Hambidge Center is now one of the top artist residency centers, but as most things in the art world they are funded by donations and their yearly auction which took place at Colony Square this year.
My experience with the Hambidge Collective Hive project came first hand. I was apart of the team that built the large installations designed by Jason Hackenwerth. We blew up nearly 30,000 balloons for these enormous amoebae looking sculptures that are now hanging just out of arm’s reach of the patrons of Colony Square.
Hackenwerth has been sculpting balloons for over two decades. He did his undergraduate at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri and his graduate program at SCAD. Since graduating in 2003 he has had his unique brand of sculptures and balloon costumes, he calls ‘wearable mega mites’ appear in galleries and exhibits all over the world, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Summerflugl, Technopark, Zurich, Switzerland.
Working with Jason Hackenwert was a glimpse into his creative process where design, planning and reality all come together. Hackenwerth’s vision is precise but after working with latex balloons for more than two decades, he has come to know their limitations as well as what to expect from his team. While blowing up and tying balloons seems like every five year old’s dream job, it can be quite grueling on your hands. We had to apply protective medical tape every morning before work to keep from peeling the skin off our fingers. It’s serious business being a professional clown.
The construction lasted from Friday, April 21st through Friday, April 28th. A full week of nine hour work days slowly blowing up countless balloons with aching fingers. The first two days were definitely the worst, but after that you just lose feeling except the occasional palm cramp. I never knew there could be such an art and technique to tying balloons off. Jason allows ‘softies’ for the first two days but after that he cracks down. He’s always willing to show you his technique for any of the procedures but when you start to hear a series of successive balloon pops you know it’s a bad sign.
Brian Morfitt, Jason’s long time assistant and friend, are a unique collaborative team. They are kindred spirits and have obviously spent many long hours in balloon pits hashing out the inner workings of these latex sculptures. The way they work together is almost mechanical. There is a symbiosis in their work. However, Brian’s reaction to popping balloons is one of thin sarcasm and slight humor. He always blames the closest person when it could have been almost anyone’s fault, even his own. Brian’s flamboyant sense of humor was a nice balance to Hackenwerth’s intense work.
Jason’s intensity was mostly seen through his work ethic when he would put in his headphones and belt out his favorite dance tunes and wildly dance around while folding balloons one over the other. The only time, and it was warranted, we saw Hackenwerth have an outburst was when Chris McGrath got the rope that was soon to be holding one of the giant balloon sculptures wrapped around one of the giant industrial fans. Luckily McGrath luckily was able to stop the fan and reverse the rotation before it got too out of hand.
After about four days when you’ve exhausted all the conceivable conversations you can have things get strange. The interdimensional portal starts to blur and everyone gets quiet then delusional. Our access to a large set of speakers helped get us over the hump of the monotonous workload. Once we had the structures hanging and started putting the outside embellishments on the ‘nests’ the beauty of them was finally coming into full fruition.
The team had done almost all the embellishments on the last day when, Hackenwerth decided to go mad balloon scientist wanting us to add as many clear balloons as humanly possible. All sharing in delusional laughter we kept adding balloons, till our eyes were bulging and our hands were throbbing. We then lowered the already decorated sculptures to replace popped balloons. You don’t end up in the Guggenheim and galas across the world by doing a half ass job. All in all it was absolutely worth the long hours and hand cramps.
Jason Hackenwerth’s pieces can be seen at Colony Square for the next two weeks and keep an eye out for the details on the forthcoming dance party where sculptures will act as the dance floor!
Written by Stephen Wilkins