Alibi V.19 No.39 • Sept 30-Oct 6, 2010 


The Fractal Man's Amazing Homegrown Flying Machine!

Mathematician has airborne art down to a science

Eric Williams

All balloonists think they fly the most beautiful thing in the sky, says Jonathan Wolfe. "And they're wrong," he laughs.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

He wears a long-sleeved shirt that’s tie-dyed orange, pink and yellow. Behind him fractals unfurl on a large, digitally printed hanging, also brilliantly colored. His office is hot and cramped, one of the studios in the Factory on 5th compound in Albuquerque's northwest industrial district. Artists, musicians and thinkers dwell here. The setting suits Wolfe, whose passion for fractals makes him a mathematician/artist hybrid.

Fractals are geometric shapes made up of ever-smaller versions of themselves. Wolfe founded the Fractal Foundation, which intends to inspire interest in math, science and art through the intricate beauty of fractals.

And in his spare time, he sews and tie-dyes his own hot-air balloons, which, in his opinion, are the most beautiful in the sky.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

He remembers early Balloon Fiestas in the '70s. Maybe 50 balloons would lift off from the Fairgrounds and fly over his childhood home in Nob Hill. "I've got pictures of me at Fiesta. Everybody else is waving at the camera, you know, Hi! Cheese! And I'm like looking straight up at the sky."

Ballooning is an expensive hobby, Wolfe says, but if you want it enough, you can make it happen. Wolfe's had a hand in four balloons. He built the one he flies on a black industrial double-needle Singer sewing machine made in 1923. Even so, his balloon "still has about $10,000 of material in it. So it's not trivial. It took years to save up. I either had the money, but not the time, or the time, but not the money." After six months of working evenings and weekends in 2001, he completed Gloria Caeli (Latin for “glory of the sky”). She’s navy blue with fiery tie-dyed spirals rolling up the sides.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

Gloria’s a crowd favorite, he says. He regularly meets people who say they’ve been photographing it for years. When Wolfe's balloon lifts off, it carries with it a message: "If you want it enough, you can build your own flying machine," he says. Wolfe tells the Alibi about his airborne art.

Why do people like your balloon so much?

It's whimsical. It's colorful. People love spirals. Spirals are one of the favorite patterns of nature, the classic fractal, from snail shells to hurricanes to galaxies. There's something about that. Also, it's not a commercial product.

It embodies a dream. Lots of people might have, once upon a time, thought of the idea of tie-dyeing a balloon. I'm not the first person to think of this idea. But I'm the first person to actually fulfill this vision, to follow through with it, to make it real. And it's incredibly inspiring, that you can take a dream like this and make it real. That you don't have to be a super-rich guy to be a balloonist.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

So what did you have to learn to do this? What are the skills that you had to pick up?

That's a good question because people are like, Are you sure you can, like, fly that thing? It's supporting people's lives. I take it really really seriously.

I had the idea in graduate school. I was living in Philadelphia. It was 1993. And it was very funny, roundabout way of getting into this. I was teaching an undergrad neurobiology class. One of my students kept wearing these really beautiful tie-dyes. We became friends and he said, Yeah I make them. He invited me over to show me how to tie-dye. I just caught fire with this idea. It was so fun. So I started making tapestries. And they got bigger and bigger.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

We had a brainstorm. What if we could tie-dye a hot-air balloon? That was 1993. I started doing some research in ’95. I went and did an apprenticeship with a balloon-builder in Vermont. He helped me do my first one, which is a little one. It's a proof of concept, really. A baby balloon. It’s still wonderful, but it's really only a one-person balloon. She's cute, her name is Julia Dream.

So that's what I did, right as I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. This is the project I was really working on. Even though it was small, it was a huge amount of work.

What's the difference between tie-dyeing a tapestry and tie-dyeing a balloon? Do you do it in chunks?

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

Yes. It's made of panels, so I do it a piece at a time. People sometimes think, Did you just take a big white balloon and twist it up and dunk it in a swimming pool full of colors? Really, it's a simple process over and over and over again. Out comes a big, complicated, beautiful pattern. It's a lesson I took from fractals where you repeat a simple idea over and over again, and end up with complexity.

So it's an act of meticulous repetition.

There's a lot of tedium in it. You have to focus. You can't be sloppy at all. It has to be impeccable. Yet there's a kilometer of fabric in this, a thousand meters of nylon. I've touched every square centimeter of it with my fingers.

“That's why I love Fiesta. It's just a party of art.”

Jonathan Wolfe, fractal hot-air balloon maker

Do you think you have a personality that is well-suited to that kind of work, or does it make you crazy?

This is not my personality. I'm definitely one of those hundred-ideas-an-hour, sort-of-ADD people that is on to the next thing, then on to the next thing. One of the big lessons I learned from this project was the power of completion. It's about actually sticking to something. I almost gave up like 20 times. I mean it took literally half a year to make it, and I thought it was never going to end. I was like, I can't tie-dye another panel. I can't do this. But I got back to it, and I did it.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

In the sewing, I found that very meditative. There's a Zen quality to this activity where you have to really focus. Every stitch counts. You don't want any holes in your balloon. You're just feeding it in and feeding it in. But it's very satisfying because you do make progress. There's this huge amount to do, but it's tangible.

How is this different from the other work you do?

I have a Ph.D. in neuroscience, which is also really exciting, but also really slow and tedious. But there's nothing really tangible that you get. You can get data. You can get graphs. Right? But it's hard to derive much physical satisfaction. With a balloon, yeah it's a lot of work, but at the end you have this thing that's like the biggest thing you've ever built. It's spectacularly beautiful.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

When you specialize and become an expert in some discipline, it's very hard to explain to the person on the street what it is that you are spending all your time doing. It takes a half-hour lecture just of background material to get to the point where I can explain what it is that I'm doing. When I publish a paper, maybe like 10 or 15 people in the whole world might read it. It's not that satisfying. That's why professionally now, I do things that make a bigger impact. I teach fractals to tens of thousands of people, which is really satisfying. Or I fly hot-air balloons that require no explanation at all. When I fly them at Balloon Fiesta, there's 100,000 spectators, and they all get it right away. It's so satisfying to reach that many people. That's why I love Fiesta. It's just a party of art.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

Do you choose your color pallet with an artistic eye?

There is very much an artistic element. It has to be adapted for this unique medium of balloons. Most art is visible at a certain scale. If you go to an art museum or a gallery, you see something on the wall, you can see it from a few feet away, a couple meters away, and that's really what it's designed for. A hot-air balloon, you see for miles away, or right up close to it. It's still got to be beautiful at all different scales. So I'm really focused on maximizing the contrast when I choose my colors.

What's the next step for you in balloon design?

What we're working toward is to make digital fractal balloons that will be mathematical, computer generated and then printed onto fabric. That's the future. So I've made four analog, handmade tie-dyed fractal balloons. In the future I will make them with computers also. I'll let the computer do the hard work. But the challenge, the problem, is that they're very expensive. The printing of this much balloon fabric is very pricey. The idea with a fractal is that you can see the same kind of pattern at different scales from different distances. So you can see this balloon from a mile away. Or you can follow it in your car or let it fly toward you, and you can look at it close-close-close up against the fabric, a millimeter away, and see tiny little spirally patterns connecting to form bigger ones and bigger ones. It will be unbelievable.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

Most balloons derive their design by arranging panels of fabric. They’re made up of big blocks of color.

Exactly. That's all they do. It's very, very low resolution. It's like 1980s computer graphics. Big blocks. It's like playing Pong or Space Invaders. That's the level of resolution that most balloons are made of. I introduced the beautiful, spiraling curves. And now I want to have infinitely complex fractal detail.

Do you know anyone else in town who's sewn a balloon and flown it?

Not in Albuquerque. There's a couple-dozen people around the world who are homebuilders. There's two guys here who have built gas balloons, the helium kind, and that's a totally different activity.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

Tell me about your first balloon ride.

It was in Vermont, in the forest. We don't get to fly in forests here.

That seems like it would be tough.

The guy brought the balloon down on a little dirt road down in this tiny little hole that was smaller than the balloon, so he just kind of funneled it down between the trees, which you can do.

That's the thing about ballooning: It's a really precise activity. You can just slide into a tiny spot. I was flying this last week and I landed in Corrales in somebody's backyard. I had to snake my way down over their house and then over the carport and then in between some cactus, and I put it down exactly where I wanted to. It was kind of in slow motion. I wove in between all these obstacles and then put it down exactly where I wanted. It feels so good when you can do that.

Tania Goldfeder-Wolfe

It's a very subtle form of control. It's not at all like brute-force airplane flying where you've got a motor, you can point and steer and go wherever you want. Ballooning, you have to use the winds. The thing is, this is chaos theory. The winds will blow every direction. They're swirling, they're invisible. That's what makes it tricky. If you could see what was going on, it would be simple. But they're doing this very complex three-dimensional spiraling swirling dance, and because of that, you can go just about anywhere.

Is that what you like about being a balloon pilot—the chaos theory?

We pretend that the atmosphere is this linear system. They'll tell you in the weather forecast, the winds are going to be out of the west at 10 miles per hour. On average, maybe that's true. Really, it's doing all this stuff. If it really was linear, you'd have 800 balloons take off at Fiesta, we'd all take off at the same time and place, we'd all fly in a big clump, and then we'd all land right next to each other. Instead we disperse and we go to 800 different destinations. We fly all over town. Because there's all these different directions. The more you are in tune with the complexity of the atmosphere, the more power and control you have to go anywhere. The atmosphere will take you there. You just have to find the way. It's very subtle, you have to pay a lot of attention to what's going on. And the more experienced you are, the more you can do these amazing things.