Loni Trude whisked back and forth through Boise Weekly headquarters in a bright red dress that wouldn't have been out of place at a square dance. She made several trips out to her small green truck to retrieve things she thought she'd need for her interview: photographs of her balloon sculptures, mounted to plastic yogurt cups with tape; a large bag bursting with art supplies; a huge, white hand pump and a packing box full of pre-made balloon people reading miniature copies of BW.
"Look! I made something that will picture your business," Trude said, arranging the sculptures on the table in the BW conference room.
For weeks, Trude had been sending BW email updates on her adventures as a balloon artist. Starting in December, she began twisting balloon sculptures customized for businesses across the Treasure Valley, submitting photographs of them to local newspapers as under-the-radar advertising and charging $50 for the service. She said that she was able to generate $850 worth of advertising for her first client, Tom Lopac of Picture Perfect Windows, based on print advertising costs.
"A lot of the newspapers liked the idea. They needed content ... so they pursued publishing a brief story along with a picture of what she's done," Lopac said.
The value of exposure marketing has long been ambiguous--it can be difficult to quantify results--but for companies like Picture Perfect Windows (which received a Trude-crafted, window-washing Santa Claus), exposure and word of mouth can be revenue drivers. Lopac said he may never know exactly how much exposure Trude's photos gave his window washing business, but to him, the experience has been beneficial.
"It was a very positive image for our company to be represented in that way," he said.
Trude said she has always had a creative side. In the mid-1980s, she illustrated for the Idaho Press-Tribune, but accepted the job with no arts training, so she contacted Jo Ann Phillips at Disney, who forwarded arts instruction materials to Trude to help her develop senses of primary and secondary action.
"Immediately my drawings improved 1,000 percent," she said. "Why my stuff is good is because I'm applying the principles of animation. I'm using Disney principles all the time."
She has also published a book of photographs that she took of young Pizza Hut patrons in Caldwell, which she titled The Crown Jewels of Caldwell--the title was inspired by the Crown Jewels of Denmark, which Trude saw during a trip to Copenhagen. She wants Danish Queen Margrethe II to sign a copy--copies have already been signed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, state Sen. Russ Fulcher and Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas--but the royal family's publicist told Trude that Her Majesty had to decline for ethical reasons.
Trude first began experimenting with balloon art after her husband died in 2005. A counselor at Calvary Chapel in Boise advised her to find a pleasurable and financially rewarding activity that didn't remind her of her husband. In the basement of the Caldwell Public Library, she found a copy of How to be a Compleat Clown [sic] by Toby Sanders, which gave Trude what she needed to begin exploring her inflatable medium.
"It's still the best book for someone who's starting out. Other books start you out with a poodle, and poodles are so complicated," she said.
Her next step was to seek out the work of another Treasure Valley balloon artist, Debra Shuller, who was twisting for children on Wednesday nights at the Nampa Applebee's.
"She started coming to the restaurant ... and drawing pictures and notes of things I was doing," Shuller said about their first encounter. "The people working there asked her what she was doing and told me that she was copying my stuff, and I went over and talked with her."
The experience left Shuller concerned, but instead of kicking Trude out, Shuller invited her to her home for weekly, hourlong sessions during which Shuller taught her a few balloon designs and tried to impart some business and ethics sense. The sessions lasted a few months, and the two haven't kept in touch.
"There were a lot of things she needed guidance on," Shuller said.
Trude said her time with Shuller helped her tremendously, and that her exposure-marketing project is working. Her client list has expanded to include Middleton Mayor Darin Taylor, real estate agents Jo Ann Lowe and Kim Pelham, Kathy Sjodin of Seven Point Two, and life coach Lori Dodson. Trude's services are booked through June 2014 and she has high hopes for the future. In the next three years, she said she would like to train a staff and have 10 regular clients. With that kind of momentum, she would be able to make a living off her sculptures.
"My dream is to have a studio. I'm really going to have to have a good list of publications [that will publish her work]," she said.
That led her to BW, where she inflated, twisted and wrangled long, brightly colored balloons into a monkey climbing a coconut tree and smaller red balloons into ladybugs while reflecting on her inspiration and motivation.
"What can people get from me and only me? Boy, that's pay dirt," she said.