Lea Winfield is no clown.
Name: Lea Winfield
Occupation: Balloon artist
Location: Memphis, TN
It’s 9:30 p.m. and Lea Winfield’s living room floor is covered in balloons. “It takes me over an hour to get everything ready, so I have to do it the night before,” she says. Each balloon has to be stacked by color, then color family, before being scrunched into the apron she’ll wear the next day. “I’ve got at least seven shades of blue in here,” Winfield says. “Some kids only like one color.”
Winfield has been crafting balloon creatures for about a decade. She learned the trade from her neighbor, who went by the moniker Mr. Mike the Balloon Man. “If I didn’t know anyone who had done it, I probably wouldn’t have sought it out on my own,” she says. “There are kits and things, but those are really hard to learn from.” Winfield was soon working weekend shifts at local chains like Joe’s Crab Shack.
Now the mom of a two-year-old son, Winfield appreciates that most of her gigs are on the weekends, so she can spend the week with her child. On a given Saturday or Sunday, she might work two or three gigs—birthday parties, or corporate events, for instance—for a few hours each. If she doesn’t have anything lined up, she’ll head to IHOP, where she looks for tables getting ready to leave. Those are the families most likely to buy a balloon creation.
CityLab talked to Winfield while she worked a busy Fourth of July breakfast crowd.
What are some of your favorite balloons to create?
I really love the unicorn. I love the shark that I make. The monkey on a tree is a popular one, that one’s really cool. I make pretty butterflies. The teddy bear is very sweet.
Does this job give you a lot of flexibility?
It works really well as a part-time job, because you can do just a few hours during the week and make decent money.
I always feel like I can be myself. I can show my tattoos and I don’t have to take out my eyebrow ring, and I have my nails crazy colors. People can connect to me and relate to me and there’s no act. Some people do the whole clown costume, fake act thing. That’s fine and fun and entertaining but I like that I can really be me.
Do you get any unusual requests?
I get all kinds of off-the-wall requests, like a lobster. People want their dog out of a balloon and it’s some mixed breed with one ear longer than the other and a spot over his left eye. They get very specific.
Is it only kids that buy your balloons?
One of our regulars is in her 60s and works at FedEx. She comes in with her husband every weekend and gets a balloon and takes it to her office.
I did balloons at the nursing home up the street. I didn’t ask them what kind of balloon they wanted, just made something and gave it to them. I wanted them to have a variety.
What’s hard about this gig?
When I first started, I was really shy. I didn’t want to approach anybody and just start up a conversation about what I’m doing and expect them to pay me for it. That’s a little scary. Well, small talk has become a forte of mine.
Maybe finding clients, or networking. Marketing is a part of it that I wouldn’t have expected.
What do you love about your job?
I love making kids happy. It’s very rewarding for me to take maybe a not-so-good day and make it pretty good through just a little simple kindness.