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Huntington artist “wigging out” in his world of creative craziness

His secret?. "I have like a compulsion to make stuff," Ballinger insists, "I can't not be making stuff."
Courtesy/Breadwig Ballinger
His secret?. "I have like a compulsion to make stuff," Ballinger insists, "I can't not be making stuff."

Huntington artist Bryan Ballinger is taking the creative world by storm these days with a steady stream of whimsical murals and picture books, and a new line of toys for kids of all ages.

His seemingly boundless energy for bringing the slightly off-kilter, outside the box and always amusing characters of his imagination to life is what this good natured artcentric insists is the key to his own well-being.

Though he can’t explain his lifelong fascination with wigs, he’s quick to tell you that they figure prominently in his multi media repertoire, from being a popular workshop & art class topic, to providing a story line for his latest kid’s book, “The Big Wig Parade.”

Not to mention that his own official muralist nom de plume is Breadwig.

For a look behind the scene and paintbrush, WBOI’s Julia Meek sat down with Bryan to learn just what fuels his passions, where they are leading him these days and how things work in “Ballinger Land.”

You can connect with the artist and his world at his Breadwig Illustration Facebook page and the official Simon and Schuster Publisher page.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Bryan Ballinger, welcome.

Bryan Ballinger: Thank you.

Julia Meek: Now artcentrically speaking this has been the year of Bryan actually. (chuckles) Before we explore these crazy connections you've been making very, very briefly where did your crazy passion for crazy art all begin?

Bryan Ballinger: Since I was a kid, I was super interested in comics, like newspaper comics, the Sunday comics, that kind of stuff, Peanuts, B.C. I would say that's definitely the foundation of where my stuff comes from.

Julia Meek: Always whimsical, always want to laugh but a point, a message, speaking of thoughtful.

Brian Ballinger: Yeah, mmmhhhmmm.

Julia Meek: So besides the prevailing thread of intense creativity and public platforms, in particular it's a kid's world that you work in and live in, would you agree?

Bryan Ballinger: I would say yes.

Julia Meek: Why is that how you roll? What compels you to be in that world and to do so well, in that world?

Bryan Ballinger: I think there's a couple of things. One is the kind of art that I like to do, and that I'm passionate for just so happens to be, you know, something that kids enjoy. So I'm actually doing what I like to do, and it just so happens, it's appealing to kids, but then it lends itself to being also appealing to adults.

It's just kind of what I like. And then I actually I also personally like children's media. So I like really good picture books like Maurice Sendak and Mercer Mayer, and all those children's book illustrators and authors. Even as an adult, I really like them.

Julia Meek: Good for you and great friends to have had such your own childhood.

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah.

Julia Meek: So a quick rundown of your activities, and to note they are statewide these days. How and where is that mural activity taking you by now Bryan, and taking your message as well and running with it.

Bryan Ballinger: You know, I started my first mural was here in Fort Wayne. Thanks and a shout out to Alex Hall, who through Art This Way really got me started on that. And then yeah, now I've done murals kind of all over Indiana.

One of my favorite ones is down in Carmel, Indiana, in the children's section of the Carmel Library. And that's a 360-degree mural so you can walk all the way around it.

Julia Meek: Inside, that particular piece is.

Bryan Ballinger: Yep.

Julia Meek: Often yours are outside and you've even got more happening here in Fort Wayne.

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah, in fact, recently, the five story parking garage mural that I did kind of went viral, and all of a sudden, it was all over the place. That's the biggest one that I've done. That one was huge and super fun.

Julia Meek: Five stories and that was also done with the special equipment and the lifts and things for that. That is the alley that runs between Calhoun and Harrison Street and then situated between Wayne Street and Berry Street, also known as the Bill Blass runway, just so folks do know where it is.

Bryan Ballinger: Yes.

Julia Meek: And my goodness, how did that feel looking at the empty space and knowing it would have to be full?

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah, yeah, you know what?` I put it out of my mind how big it really was. And I just was like, Okay, I'm just gonna go and do it. I'm not gonna overthink it or anything. You know, I've never driven a bucket lift that big.

And we had to actually get a second one because the wind was making it wobble around too much, because it was going up so high. But yeah, I just was like, I'm not even to think about it. I'm just going to put my head down, and I'm going to do it. And it worked out.

Julia Meek: The whole world is happy that it did. And that does also include the timeframe because that was a “start it and finish it and keep going with it.”

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah. And I even had a couple rain delays. But yeah, that's part of my superpower and my weakness, is focus, I get focused, and I get into the zone and I just do it. Now the downside to that is trying to distract me or get my attention. And it's hard to do when I'm there.

Julia Meek: The rest of life.

Bryan Ballinger: Yup.

Julia Meek: We see. Now these larger than life murals just may be a metaphor, not only for your life, Bryan, but for your impact on Midwestern creativity. What is it like to be on that roll, to be wired that way, to be that's just how you are?

Bryan Ballinger: I don't know. It's interesting, because yeah, all the murals that I do and all the other stuff I do, you can tell that it's my stuff, no matter what the medium is. And I just feel really blessed because I'm doing art in my style. And people can come and look at it as I'm doing it.

When I'm out doing murals. It's a reward for me because I get to interact with people as I'm doing it. And then it's an extra reward because then it's out there in the public and people are enjoying it and getting to comment and take their pictures in front of it and see it. So yeah, I just absolutely love doing public art.

Julia Meek: And since every muralist is different and every situation, of course is different as well, you do welcome the interaction when everything's going relatively smoothly. Does that ever make it harder to progress in a day or a week? Is it balanced off by the good that you get from the interaction?

Bryan Ballinger: I would say for me, it's really balanced. It's also great because I love like in Fort Wayne, the diversity of people that I get coming through kind of energizes me. So at different times a day, I get different types of folks coming through and get kids and adults. It's also a lot of my work.

I'm sitting at home in my studio by myself working on stuff, but when I'm doing murals, I'm outside, I'm in the weather, my whole body is moving, I'm interacting with people, they get to come back and see the progress. So the reward is definitely definitely there for me.

Julia Meek: And the word immersive takes on new meaning.

Bryan Ballinger: It really does!

Julia Meek: For everybody, yeah, those that watch and those that do it. And let's talk about another recurring Ballinger theme--that's the wig-- as in your own nom de plume, which is Breadwig Ballinger. Now you confided several years ago that it's your comic, comment on the old powdered wig of the 17th century, your little joke.

Bryan Ballinger: Yep.

Julia Meek: Why is it so consuming seemingly all of your many media that you work?

Bryan Ballinger: I am fascinated by wigs! I think they're awesome. I think they're a creative expression for people. There's so many different kinds, you can you know, be conservative with them, you can be all extravagant and crazy with them. I just find them endlessly inspirational to me.

Julia Meek: Obviously, it must be easy to joke about it or get others to laugh about it as well and you do prove that in your very brand new book. Okay, how does the balance work on your projects, especially like between the books and the murals and the toys, even workshops?

Something like wigs or not? How can all of that enhance the experience beyond the sum of its parts to go back and catch those jokes and turn them around and make them fresh and make them you and make them yours?

Bryan Ballinger: It's hard juggling all that stuff. But yeah, the thread of kind of the stuff that I like, and my style kind of runs through the whole thing. But yeah, so you know, with wigs, you know, it's in my logo and in in my artist name.

And then in the new book that I just have out called The Big Wig Parade, that's the central theme. And then I'm doing workshops down at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis and the actual workshop that I do with the kids is they design characters, and then they design these crazy wigs to go on the characters. So it's like this fun thread that goes through it.

Julia Meek: Double creativity as well. You're making them pretend and be crazy and then put a crazier thing on top of that.

Bryan Ballinger: Yep.

Julia Meek: And we certainly don't want to leave any spoilers but to mention, the new book is full of fun wig themes and it's also full of other funny things, and that has to do with the smells and the sounds that bodies make and all of that always good for a laugh. Does it tickle your own fancy as well as everybody else's?

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah, that's sort of my gauge is if I laugh at it and find it amusing, then I feel like I've been successful with it. (chuckles) Yeah, yeah. And then I also have a fondness for, like characters that are a little bit off kilter, or a little bit strange or a little bit interesting.

Because that's, that's the kind of people that I like, you know, I like people that are different, and that don't fit right within a mold that's been predefined or anything. So that makes its way into stuff like that book.

Julia Meek: And a word on getting into the mind of a kid. Let's talk kids of all ages here. What's your motivation as well as your method, Bryan? How can you grow that goodness? How can you make it better? Once you get in there how do you know you got them hooked?

Bryan Ballinger: Part of it is that I don't like it when media or adults are condescending to kids. And so I really try and not have that. If I start to feel like that's the voice that's coming through my work, then I'm I know I'm not on the right track.

Julia Meek: I think it's safe to say you don't have to worry, Bryan (laughs) but while you're not worrying and really cultivating that, isn't that an intimacy, I mean really a tightness, a closeness that you are categorically jumping into with kids everywhere when you can really bond with them over a good book?

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah, yeah you know, and all the greatest children's media just has this honesty to it and this kind of grounding in reality and truth, even if it's a crazy fanciful story. Yeah. And kids respond to that.

And that also means that the stuff that you're making, if you're not in that sort of condescending tone, or in that sort of fakeness, it helps it appeal to everybody of all ages.

Julia Meek: Great point. And speaking of appealing like it does, you have such a good inroad with the kids museum in Indy. Besides feeling wonderful to have that connection, what does it feel like you can do with of course, kids of all ages, kids and their parents, but just having that presence and working there in such a space? What's the feel there?

 Bryan Ballinger: It is so rewarding when I'm working with the kids there and we're designing characters and stuff, when they are excited about what they're doing. That's my reward. That's what really drives me.

You know, they've made something and they've created something and I personally believe everybody is creative. And so when I see that passion come out in them and they, all their drawings look different.

You know, I'm showing them how I draw and then I have them draw and every piece of art that is made all looks completely different. Oh, yeah, we'll all be drawing pigs and wigs. They'll all completely different and I love it.

Julia Meek: And what street cred to have the Indianapolis kids museum wrapped around your finger in certain ways. Does that feel like home when you're down there?

Bryan Ballinger: Yes. I love that place. I love all the kids that are there that are so excited to be there. The staff there is amazing. Just the whole vibe of the place is fantastic. Yeah, the folks that I'm working with down there are just fantastic.

Julia Meek: Organic artcentricity.

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah!

Julia Meek: There is nothing like it.

Bryan Ballinger: Yep.

Julia Meek: With all of this crazy good output and opportunity, it's no wonder you received this year's Governor's Artists Award, Bryan, and well deserved accolades to be sure. How does that make you feel besides fantastic, we got that, and exactly what is the most important plus that you feel it nets you going forward now?

Bryan Ballinger: You know, one of the biggest things about it is that I didn't apply for it. I was nominated by the community. That really makes it super special for me. I had people that actually nominated me for it. And then yeah, getting it.

Yeah, like you said, it feels absolutely fantastic. And one of the biggest benefits that I've seen from it is that I've gotten, let's see, three gallery shows that people have approached me about having my work in different galleries around the state. That I'm super happy about.

Julia Meek: So exponentially. this really does keep going and blowing up?

Bryan Ballinger: Yep.

Julia Meek: Wonderful, wonderful. It's quite a compliment to be represented by Powerhouse Kids and Simon and Schuster, those are your writing outlets. So what's next, or maybe recurring in the literary Land of Ballinger?

Bryan Ballinger: The Big Wig Parade just came out last week. And then I've got two more books, one coming out in January called Counting Cows and that's with Powerhouse Kids too. And then I've got another one with Powerhouse coming out soon after that called A Pig Named Joe and His Quest to Be Fancy. (chuckles) It's about a pig that builds his own banjo out of a toilet seat and a plunger.

Julia Meek: (laughs) Of course it is!

Bryan Ballinger: Well, you know, (chuckles) as one does! And then I just with my literary agent, I just finished writing up another book and she's shopping that around. And I've got three or four other book ideas that I'll be starting on soon, too.

Julia Meek: Are there more canines or other menagerie on the toy line as well? (chuckles)

Bryan Ballinger: Yes! So the first toys in the Faulty Dogs line are about out. And then I'm working with a company called Tenacious Toys in New York City and we've got plans for a bunch more.

Julia Meek: Are kids identifying with all the swag and all the craziness and well, again, everything in Ballinger Land? Are they wanting to be there with you, Brian?

Bryan Ballinger: I think so. I think so. Yeah. That's one thing I've never had a problem with is relating to kids. Again, the stuff that I like tends to be the stuff that kids like. So yep, it just seems to fit.

Julia Meek: Who knew?

Brian Ballinger: Yes.

Julia Meek: Great.

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah, yeah!

Julia Meek: I do wonder, are you ever stumped for an idea or afraid that you might be?

Bryan Ballinger: I actually have kind of the opposite problem where I have so many ideas that I get a little anxious about having the time to do them all.

So I just have a backlog and I have a big list of all this stuff that I want to do. My biggest problem is probably that, yeah, I don't have enough time to do everything that I want to do.

Julia Meek: Well we will still hope that that is a happy problem to have?

Bryan Ballinger: Yeah, yeah.

Julia Meek: Okay. And you'll continue to work on trying to get over on it. (chuckles)

Bryan Ballinger: Yep!

Julia Meek: So put it all together, Bryan. Your world of kids imagination is really on fire, we're happy to see that. It becomes you. We know what they all get from it and it's amazing, please carry it on. But bottom line, what does it all do for you, you the biggest Breadwig of all?

Bryan Ballinger: Just getting to make stuff. I have like a compulsion to make stuff. I can't not be making stuff.

And so getting to make stuff and then actually having people appreciate it and want to make more and even getting inspired by it is awesome.

And to have this all kind of coming together at this age and stage of my life is just--it's amazing, it's absolutely amazing.

Julia Meek: Bryan Ballinger is an artist, author, educator artcentric, living in Huntington, Indiana. Thank you for sharing your stories and the story of it all with us, Bryan. Keep up the crazy; do carry the gift.

Bryan Ballinger: Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.