HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- – Balloon artists from across the country came to Richmond over the weekend to honor one of their own: Deborah Fellman, the sole proprietor of RVA Balloons, who was diagnosed with cancer in November.
After her diagnosis, Fellman’s friends offered to send her anywhere she wanted. Instead, she asked that her friends gather in Richmond to build a massive balloon art exhibit in Regency Square mall.
"Regency was an immediate choice because I’ve worked at the mall with [marketing director] Julie Gordon on a lot of her projects," Fellman said.
Fellman was invited to the shopping center’s 40th anniversary, which featured a balloon drop.
She also built a rhino exhibit of giant balloons for World Rhino Day.
Originally, Fellman thought just a handful of balloon artists would show up for the weekend event, but more than 50 people attended, including professional clowns, stilt walkers, rocket scientists and physicians.
"This is all about the love. Everybody here has lost thousands of dollars in bookings to be here," Fellman said.
Fellman worked a 9-to-5 job in an office for more than 15 years.
One day, she went into a bookstore with her nephews and bought a book about balloon art.
"I just remember thinking that I had no art in me and being very sad about that because I can’t draw or sketch," Fellman said.
But she became a talented balloon artist and came to realize that she was turning down as much work as her salary. It was that trip to a bookstore with her nephews that gave her that spark to pursue her passion.
And that passion is what attracted Fellman’s devoted network of friends.
"She is an amazing person, and she asked us to do something. How do you say no?" Laurie Straus of Valley Cottage, New York, said.
Several who attended told personal stories about Fellman.
"My late husband and Deborah shared a special bond," said Patty Sorell of Boston.
That’s because Fellman had self-esteem issues: She was worried that people didn’t always see her smile.
“My husband took her aside and told her how beautiful she was,” Sorell said.
That compliment boosted Fellman’s confidence enough that she took her first selfie at a balloon art conference. While on stage, in front of everyone, she turned around and took her picture with the audience.
“She inspired me to face my fears,” said Melissa Vincent, a balloon artist from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Last year, Vincent created and modeled a dress made from balloons. It started with a gray jacket, but underneath was a colorful dress, to signify coming out of her shell. It was a tribute to Fellman.
“She has always been there to lend a helping hand. Her designs are so beautiful,” Vincent said.
Beauty is what Fellman wanted to achieve with the exhibit that was built over the weekend at Regency. Her goal was to bring an enchanted balloon garden to Richmond.
The exhibit will be on display through next weekend – or until the balloons begin to deflate.
“People think they have seen balloons. They just don’t know,” Fellman said. “I’ve always wanted to show Richmond balloon art and to show them that it is art.”
By DeForrest Ballou
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.