Kameron Messmer’s plans were upended during the pandemic. He’d moved to Portland to start a career as a variety entertainer under the name “Daredevil Circus Wizard.” But instead, he ended up making balloon art. In fact, his giant balloon sculptures became so popular, he started getting requests for them. Now, Messmer has created a balloon art installation in an abandoned storefront in downtown Portland. He joins us to share more about his work and his latest exhibit, the Joy Store.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Kameron Messmer had grand plans when he moved to Portland. He was going to start a career as a variety entertainer for parties and other events under the name ‘Daredevil Circus Wizard.’ But there was one big problem with that plan: the timing, because he arrived shortly before the coronavirus did, meaning there were no parties or events. So, he pivoted. He became a balloon artist. I know this sounds like some kind of public radio April Fools’ [Day] joke, but it is true. Messmer’s latest installation is in an abandoned storefront in downtown Portland. It’s called the Joy Store. Kameron Messmer, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Kameron Messmer: Thanks for having me, Dave.
Miller: I’ve read that you grew up working in your family’s variety store business in Billings, Montana. What kinds of stuff did you sell?
Messmer: Yeah. My dad opened the store when I was 13, and I was the only employee. So everything that came in I had to learn, every book and video and trick that came in. We did all sorts of magic, juggling, we rented tuxes, we did balloons, we did clowning supplies, we did costumes and makeup, we did inflatables and bouncy houses. Anything that had joy and party elements, that’s the kind of stuff we did.
Miller: What was it like having that store be a place that you had almost exclusive access to?
Messmer: That’s the thing. It was kind of like having a talent store at my fingertips. I had to learn this stuff to have my job. So I had a leg up on a lot of other performers that had to buy these things. It was a really good experience to be just thrown into this where I had to learn all these different talents. And all these years later they have mixed into a weird amalgamation of the Joy Store.
Miller: So this was a family business in a sense, I mean magic and all of the stuff that would go along with it?
Messmer: Absolutely. My dad was a performing magician, so he would perform stage stuff. But we also had the magic store. My mom would be working in the back in the tuxes and I would be performing magic tricks and selling tricks and juggling, and I eventually moved on to doing birthday parties.
Miller: How old were you when you started performing yourself?
Miller: Thirteen, at birthday parties for kids who were younger than you?
Messmer: Yep, exactly. I would be doing parties for five-year-olds at 13, 14 years old. It’s just kind of been my fallback career wherever I go because kids will always have birthday parties.
Miller: My understanding is that you also grew up in a pretty religious family. Were those combined – the performing and having the church be a big part of your life?
Messmer: Yeah, it was a big part of my life. I was there for five, six times a week sometimes. I went to school there five days a week. So we would often be there more than my house. But yeah, I really took hold of the religious teachings of Jesus; I really related to that. I’m not religious any longer, but I still really wanted to hold onto those morals and ideals of kindness and generousness and goodness and all the gentleness. Those things I still really really believe in, and that’s what I still want to hold on to.
Miller: I’ve read that you also grew up in a multiethnic family, in a pretty rural place in Montana. What was that like?
Messmer: Yeah. The ‘80s and ‘90s didn’t have a lot of people of color out there. I was often the only person of color in my group and even in my family somewhat. My siblings can pass as white, where I can’t. People would meet my siblings and go, ‘Oh, you’re related to them?’ I’m like, ‘That’s my sister.’ and they would go, ‘You’re not adopted?’ That’s how different I look from the rest of my siblings. So, even in my family, I would stand out. I make the joke that the toner ran out right away on me as the first born. So, yeah.
Miller: How did that affect you being the center of attention when you were putting yourself out there for shows?
Messmer: That’s a very good question. I would get a lot of animosity I think. I was the different person anyways. I was darker, I was the performer, I was the center of attention, I was doing something that they couldn’t do. So a lot of people out there had a lot of animosity and I think I had to really push through and overcome that, growing up in Montana. It would have been a lot different than out here. Out here it’s a little more accepting. It’s a little more normal to do these art things. Out there, it was not the norm.
Miller: What did bring you to Oregon?
Messmer: I have family out here. My aunt and uncle live out here, and my cousins and their family live out here. We love them, so we moved out here. We were kind of under housed at the moment, so we lived in a trailer for a bit with them. That was a tough year, right before the pandemic. It was all starting over in a new state and a new place, a new new living situation. I was really, really trying to make it here as a performer and it was taking off… And then the pandemic hit.
Miller: That phrase, the persona that, my understanding is, you were going to do: ‘Daredevil Circus Wizard.’ What was the plan? What was the business that you were seeking?
Messmer: I love performing of all different types. I think I was trying to combine a lot of my different past talents and abilities and stuff into one persona because I think I am kind of a unique person. ‘Daredevil Circus Wizard’ just came to me one day. It always usually makes people smile, and it’s pretty descriptive.
Miller: What are the different elements that you were going to be bringing?
Messmer: Basically, I like to not just do magic. I like to do sideshow things like fire eating, I like to juggle, I like to do comedy… just kind of a range, like a one-man variety act, basically, but add some danger into it as well. I try to perform for all ages, so I don’t make it scary or anything.
Miller: You were booking shows or events or parties and then the pandemic hit?
Messmer: Absolutely. I did a show the day that we were joking about the pandemic. I was sanitizing things in my show and spraying things down and being like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to stay six feet apart.’ And then it wasn’t a joke anymore, like within two days.
Miller: Yeah, it wasn’t six feet anymore. It was, ‘there are no parties.’
Messmer: Yep. ‘Stay in your home.’
Miller: What did that mean for your business? I mean it seemed like it evaporated overnight. Were you – the phrase you used was ‘under housed’ – were you still under housed at that point?
Messmer: Yes, definitely. I was living in a trailer, and it was not the best situation. It was very discouraging because I was very much trying my best. And, coming out here, that was just kind of the world slapping me down. Everything was going well; it was going on an interesting trajectory. But, obviously, everyone else’s plans changed as well.
Miller: How did you go from that to becoming known as a balloon artist?
Messmer: I had a whole bunch of balloons left over from a previous business from years ago, and I needed to use them up. I had been literally traveling around with them, not having a house but having thousands of balloons with me, so I needed to get rid of them. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to put things in the yard. People would walk by. It was like an event. People in the neighborhood would come. People would drive to come see me make a giant octopus out of thousands of balloons in my aunt’s yard. So people would come by. I had made a giant sun, I made a beach scene, I made an Easter scene. I made about a dozen different giant balloon sculptures in the yard.
Miller: How does that turn into a business? I can see it’s a pretty clear business proposition if somebody hires you for a party or an event. But how do you make a business out of balloon installations?
Messmer: The balloon installation was part of the art really. It was my expression, and it was kind of a hope that that would be an advertisement to just do parties. That’s what I do, often, is decorate or do decor or whatever for parties as well as perform. But this was more fun for me. Having a background of: I’ve owned an arcade, I’ve owned a candy store, I’ve owned a toy and game store, obviously the magic and the balloons and all that. I had all this background in retail and store and customer service, and I really wanted to get away from the business aspect. All the joyous business things, at the end of the day, still had that bottom line and that commercialism and that paycheck. I’m all about the joy. I want to be all about the happiness and not all about the money basically.
Miller: Although the money is crucial if you don’t want to be living in a trailer.
Messmer: True, true. That’s why this is an experiment. I’m seeing if people will be generous in this weird, kind of backwards setup, this weird system. Most people have the bottom line in mind first, and I want to have the joy in mind. I want to have the people’s happiness in mind first and just rely on people’s generosity because I don’t want to turn anyone away from joy. I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh you can’t afford joy. No, you can’t come in.’ I give out, and some people can donate more, some people can’t and it balances out in the end. As long as I can fulfill my purpose and spread some joy around, I’ve done my job.
Miller: Can you describe the pop-ups that you started doing in Portland, for example, the snow globe that you had in the holiday season this past winter?
Messmer: I was working with the Portland Playhouse. They had gotten a hold of me for the summer, and I’d done an event for them. Then I reached out to them for their 2021 Christmas Carol production. This idea has been kicking around in my head for literally years: putting balloons and fans in a room and seeing what happens. I thought it would make a beautiful giant snow globe basically, and it turned out beautifully. It had a whole bunch of fans pointed at hundreds of little tiny white balloons in a giant glass room, and it was magical.
Miller: I remember driving by that in December with my kids and being so surprised by just a big glassed-in room with all these little white balloons just bouncing all over the place. And something about having it be silent, as you could bike or drive by, made it even more special and weird. What did you hear from people after you put that up?
Messmer: Oh, I got such a good reaction. I mean most people thought it was just an art thing as they were walking by. But when I was open, I would invite people in and it was 10 times better. People would stand under the snow; they would be in the snow flurry. They would be part of the art. That’s the other thing I want to do is invite people to be inside the art. Instead of just looking at a static painting or something on the wall, I want you to be a part of it. You are part of the art. You are adding to the art and experiencing it all at once being surrounded by it. That’s what I think people are missing a lot in art. It’s that disconnect.
Miller: Can you describe the new pop-up that folks can go to now in downtown Portland that you call the Joy Store?
Messmer: Yeah. We’re on SW 5th and Taylor. We’re a donation-based art exhibit to spread joy. If you want to walk by, you can definitely peek in the windows and see the joyous giant white puffy cloud with all the rainbow rays. It’s all lit up and says ‘joy’ in the back. But the main attraction is the Balloon Typhoon. I took another giant glass office and added some giant colorful balloons. They’ve been blowing in the window for weeks, and it stops almost everybody that walks by. It catches the eye of people from blocks away sometimes. It’s been a much better reaction than even I was hoping for. Those different colored balloons … changes that … from those little white ones from the snow was magical, to this is just that happy feeling that you can’t really explain.
Miller: Why do you call this a Joy Store?
Messmer: I really like the idea of changing economics, the whole idea of a store, on its head. I go into the mall across the street and there’s security and it seems so sterile and so… it seems so money focused. Coming from the religious end, coming from the joyous end, the artistic end, things seemed just icky to me. I didn’t want to demand money, but I still wanted to show off the trappings of it, just to surprise people. People are very surprised when they walk into the store and they’re demanded of nothing. They aren’t charged anything, they’re given things for free, they get to experience things. It’s not a harsh kind of experience like it would be in some other stores.
Miller: You end your bio on your website with a pretty dramatic quote from Robin Williams. This is what it says:
‘I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.’
Why did you put that on your bio?
Messmer: I’ve always related to that quote. I’ve related to Robin Williams quite a bit: a lot of the depression, a lot of that separation I think I felt growing up but still being in that spotlight. I had all these pure intentions, and some of the people did not really get my pure intentions I think. It feels like I’ve been wanting to be kind and generous, and it was an uphill battle at times. I’ve felt what it’s like to be rejected for no reason or because of someone else’s insecurities or whatever. I want to give people grace. I want to give people understanding like I didn’t get.
Miller: What gives you joy right now?
Messmer: Really, honestly, giving other people joy. This has been a very solitary experience because I came up with the idea, I wrote everything, I printed everything, I blew up every balloon and tied them all together. Every single thing has been by myself. So it’s been a very quiet, lonely experience to build the art. Just the last couple of days of letting people in to experience it for the first time has been all I needed. It’s been worth every single moment of loneliness, of putting this all together, to see other people have this random, unexpected time of joy in the middle of their day.
Miller: Kameron Messmer, thanks very much for joining us.
Messmer: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: That is the balloon artist Kameron Messmer.
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