Pop Artist: Irina Patterson has a job that's full of hot air. By Gail Cameron Wescott, June 2006
The balloons on top of her head stop people in their tracks. They're not your ordinary birthday balloons, but spheres twisted into multicolored, outlandish, towering crowns. Irina Patterson, known in South Florida as the balloon lady, also fashions bubble flower sculptures, mermaids, even monkeys hanging from trees.
Growing up in the bleak Cold War landscape of Soviet Russia, Irina, now 46, never imagined she'd one day make a living as a balloon artist. The daughter of an engineer and a teacher, she won top academic awards in high school, went on to medical school and became an emergency room physician in Izhevsk, the small city where she was raised.
"I loved the science of medicine," she says today, "but being a doctor was very hard. I saw things people don't normally see -- women giving birth in the street, people getting drunk and killing someone." Medications were scarce, making it very difficult to treat those in need. In 1992, when Irina was 33, a girlfriend showed her a correspondence magazine photo of an American psychologist named Wes Patterson. "He was gorgeous," Irina says. They began exchanging letters, and six months later the divorced Patterson invited Irina to visit him in Miami. "He said he knew by the way I expressed myself that he wanted to marry me," says Irina. "If someone had told me this story, I wouldn't have believed it."
The couple wed that December and settled in Patterson's Coral Gables apartment. Irina, a willowy blonde just under six feet tall, chose not to complete the extensive retraining needed to continue her medical career in the United States. After briefly pursuing modeling -- she was Cindy Crawford's body double in Fair Game -- she took a public relations job. Then, a few years ago, she watched a man at a party twist a skinny balloon into the shape of a dog. Kismet!
Irina was soon hooked. She purchased a tiny pump and a supply of balloons and began practicing on the sidewalks of Coconut Grove, experiencing a surge of creative energy she hadn't felt since childhood art class. Observers challenged her to create all kinds of figures -- alligators, butterflies, horses, ballerinas. And with each piece, she improved her technique. Now, Irina says, "There's nothing I can't make," including a huge likeness of Shaquille O'Neal that requires 50 balloons.
Many years ago, Irina's husband, Wes, was diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a progressive, intensely painful disorder of the nervous system which now keeps him homebound. "But he is a very philosophical, wonderful man," Irina says. "It makes him so happy that I have found something that makes me happy." Thanks to her new career, she is able to support them both, performing an average of five events weekly (baby showers, bar mitzvahs, even fund-raisers at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach) and earning as much as $2,000 per appearance.
"Irina's a wonder," says Marlene Berg, chief development officer for the Florida Heart Research Institute, where the artist recently donated her services for a black-tie benefit. "She created these phenomenal sculptures, one after the other, and turned the evening into magic." "My whole life has become magic," Irina says, "and it's all come from a balloon."