Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jami Krause, Twister Extraordinaire

Some makers don't fit neatly into the worlds of craft, or art or design, yet they are Independent Makers, nonetheless, because they work alone, are passionate about the things they make, and about generating an income from their effort. Jami Krause is one of those 'other' types of maker.

I find her model of making very interesting, because she makes clever, visually appealing objects that please crowds of people - and then gives them away. She charges for her time, and in one session, may make only one complex object, or dozens of simpler ones.

Jami is a Balloon Twister. You might be surprised to learn that there's a boatload of folks nationwide who make all the money they need, working as balloon twisters. Some people have even found success in developing and manufacturing the tools and accessories that twisters use in their work.

This Summer, Jami is taking the big leap. She will quit her office job, sell the contents of her apartment, pack up her bike, and travel the country, twisting balloons and blogging about her adventures. If things work out, she will land in a new home, where she will make her living making balloons, and a lot of smiles.

Tell us about what you make.
Well, I am a professional balloon twister, so I make balloon creations on demand for the clients who decide to hire me. That can be anything from a delivery piece, which may take an hour to make, to, like when I go to parties, I do whatever I'm asked to do, like this weekend, I made an upright bass, and a sailboat, and a bunch of cartoon characters. I do things that are fancier than the classic 3-twist balloon dog. I also do more elaborate things - I just made a full-scale dress for a fashion show. It used a couple hundred balloons, and a model wore it on a runway.

So there are times where you make an object, and then put a price on it, and then other times, you just charge by the hour?
It's really more the time that's the valuable thing. I did a craft show recently where I made some stuff ahead of time and priced them.

But you really can't make a surplus, because these items have a life span...
Yeah, it has a short life span, so things are generally made on demand, but a delivery item varies in time necessary to make - a full-scale dress takes more time than a centerpiece vase and flowers. I kind of like that they are sort of an ephemeral item, that goes away once it's usefulness has faded. It's not another toy that a kid is going to take home and clutter up their toybox once they've stopped caring about it.

It is natural latex right?
Yeah, so it will naturally degrade - biodegrade - over time, certainly alot faster than some plastic.

How long have you been doing this?
I first started twisting about 4 years ago, really simple things, and then two years ago I took classes, and a year ago I went to a professional convention. And I think only in this year have I gotten really good.

So this hasn't been your full-time gig?
No, I have been working at a professional association, and doing this in my spare time. But I've met so many people who support themselves doing balloons, that I'm sure I can too.

What do you like most about doing this?
I just love the reactions. I just did a party for a girl who was turning three, where I showed up with this Rapunzel piece that she had requested, and the little girl immediately recognized it for what it was, so when people appreciate what I make, it's empowering. Watching people being enraptured by what I'm making is really fun.

What are your thoughts about the prospect of doing this for a living?
I am completely overjoyed. Lately, I've been feeling really stuck, and then I decided I have no excuse to not just go do it. I have a feeling I'm going to do well. I've been having a conversation with a woman who is publishing a book about how she was going through all this trouble, and she started twisting balloons, and after a year she quit her job, and then after eight years, at age forty she was semi-retired.

What's some of the hardest things about doing this?
Well, when the economy is down, it's harder to get gigs. And even in better times, it's hard to constantly find clients who will hire you.

What things or services are most unaffordable?
Healthcare is my biggest concern. Right now I have a 'Cadillac' healthcare plan, so that's given me pause. It's the fear of losing security. I'm looking at getting a bare minimum plan, and even that is expensive for what little you get.

What turned out to be the easy or cheap things to get?
Some people spend alot of money on training, but I'm good at picking up on how to make something by just looking at it. Also, I'm pretty tech-savvy, so I've been able to make my own website, and my own business cards, and things like that. I've been doing marketing as part of my day job, so I can use that when I do my own stuff.

Was there any invaluable resource or person you've discovered?
Well, there is a 'balloon community' -

A Balloonity?
Yes! [laughs] And they are pretty awesome. Lots of discussion boards, conventions, and it's not a cutthroat field - it's competitive, but not at the expense of other people. They're trying to raise the standard of our art, and raise awareness in the public. They have a mentality of raising the tide to lift all the boats at once. There's a convention coming up - I'm really excited to go - where they have a 23-hour a day 'jam room', where people just go and make things without sleeping, and there's a pajama party, and people just hug everybody [laughs] It's an amazing community to be in.

So have you drawn some quantifiable value from the community?
We refer gigs to each other, and if you get a gig where more than one twister is needed, then I can call my friend Amanda who can help me, or if there's a regular gig and I can't make it one week, I can get someone to cover me. And if someone refers me to a gig, I send them a check. So the community has that kind of value.

Is there something you would do if you had more money, or time or resources?
I wish I had more time. I have a Chicago performer's licence, but I haven't had time to go out and use it, and get more exposure.

What do you wish existed to help makers be more self-sufficient?
A healthcare network, or an insurance pool that people could sign up for to make it cheaper. That would definitely help, and getting collective business advice, for getting licenses and such.

What do you think prevents some makers from being more self-sufficient?
I think that people don't give enough value to things that are handmade, or made personally for them. You really can't go into Target and get such things.

Any obstacles specific to Twisters?
I know so many people who support themselves from balloons that it seems almost silly for me not to get rid of my stuff and do this trip.

And my last question is: Can I claim first dibs on your sofa?

You can check out Jami's creations and follow her blog here:

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