On a recent weekday, Robbie Furman sat in the lobby of the Cross Creek building at the Charlestown retirement community with a suitcase that he guessed weighs about 10 or 20 pounds. As a health insurance resource manager for Erickson Advantage, a branch of parent company Erickson Living, which operates the Catonsville center, Furman spends his days meeting with residents about their healthcare options.
His suitcase isn't packed with insurance literature. Inside, there are about 500 balloons in an assortment of colors, shapes and sizes. When he's not talking insurance, he uses his balloons to deliver cheer to the seniors. He's worked for Erickson Living for about a year and has been spending time at Charlestown for about a month.
Now, he's starting to be known across the 110-care campus as "the balloon guy." Balloon art has been a hobby of Furman's for more than 25 years. He started by volunteering at events, then created his own business in 2000. He said he traveled to 37 countries in five continents to take part in parties, television work and classes.
"I find the most passion in making balloons for people who enjoy them," he said. "I'm in a much happier place doing what I do."Furman, 45, who lives in Baltimore, caught the balloon-making bug when he was 7 and saw a balloon artist in action. When he was about 19 — and his aspiration was long forgotten, he was working at a bookstore when he saw a book on how to make balloon animals. It rekindled his childhood dream.
Now 45, he's been blowing and twisting balloons ever since. The craft has always been a novelty, he said. At the time, there were 10 colors of balloons to choose from. Now, with more colors, shapes and sizes, there are hundreds of options, he said. "It was like a 360," he said. "This is my destiny." He enjoys the art form because even to this day, there are no rules, he said.
He compares the art of balloon making to music. Songs are based on a set of notes. Furman uses a combination of five basic twists to make each of his creations.
"Anybody with a desire to learn how to make balloons can make every one of these designs," he said, pointing to tables in the lobby with some ducks, a bear, a monkey in a tree and a fruit basket on them, all made out of balloons. "All of these designs use basic, basic, techniques but brought together in a way that's easy to make."
And unlike most temporary art forms, the final products are something that is meant to be kept, lasting a couple of weeks, he said. At Charlestown, he'll use the balloons to teach residents and help with fundraisers and events.
When Patti Santoni, the director of philanthropy at Charlestown, saw that Furman made the balloon ducks, she enlisted him to make some for the community's annual Lucky Duck Race fundraiser, in its second year.
"I always think balloons are uplifting, no matter what," she said. "When you see someone walking around with balloons, it brings a smile to people's faces. It brings out the kid in you." Before he left for the day, he made a few balloons for residents. "Now watch this," he said to resident Lois Smedley as he started to create. "This is where people go wondering what is that going to be." After a few more seconds of twisting, he attached some eye stickers to what he made and handed a teddy bear to her. "I like him," she said about the bear. What could be seen as a small gesture is one that can change someone's whole day, Furman said.