The Fundraiser That Floats

Balloon parade for aquarium showcases a unique art form

“Balloon Fairies” Marcie McGrath (far left) and Jillian Isele (far right) will join “The Sea Mither Face Painter” Audrey McKay and juggler Kenny “The Clown” Cowden to raise money for sea life on Main Street.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Like most vessels of the 18th century, Queen Anne’s Revenge, the famous flagship of British buccaneer Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard), was constructed from oak and pine. Though these materials have long been revered for their buoyancy, balloon artist Marcie McGrath is planning to build a pirate ship out of something much lighter — air and biodegradable rubber. 

Known to many as the Balloon Fairy, McGrath is the creative command behind Hendersonville’s first annual Balloon Fest. Scheduled for Saturday, May 8, the event is part jubilee, part fundraiser for the Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO, a Main Street mainstay that provides children with an educational ocean experience in the mountains. 

In keeping with the aquatic theme, Balloon Fest’s main attraction will be a six- to eight-foot-tall pirate ship made from balloons. Commandeered by a balloon crew and hundreds of sea creatures, the watercraft will be on display at the Historic Courthouse, where guests can meet a mermaid, watch the handiwork of jugglers, and more. Come noon, festival patrons can also observe the Sea Creature Swim, a parade from the Aquarium and Shark Lab to the courthouse plaza.

“We’re excited to reopen downtown Hendersonville and bring some money into the pockets of the aquarium,” says McGrath, who hopes to raise $10,000 for the nonprofit organization. 

Of course, because of its sheer size and whimsy, all eyes will be on the balloon boat. Though the unnamed vessel is tiny compared to Blackbeard’s 200-ton behemoth, the building process will still be fairly complicated, demanding hundreds, if not thousands, of balloons and several days of work. To help with the project, McGrath recruited a handful of homeschoolers and six other artists: Jennifer Staley, Kenny Cowden, Carl Woody, Dylan Rowe, Jillian Brooks, and Audrey McKay. Together, the troupe boasts half a century of combined balloon-twisting experience.  

To stave off the heat, which can cause balloons to wilt like lettuce, the pirate ship will be constructed inside First Baptist Church of Hendersonville and later transported, ever so carefully, to its reveal party. 

“There’s just something about watching kids’ eyes fill with joy as a balloon inflates and I twist it into this magical thing,” says McGrath. “The art is heart-driven; balloons are a love language.” 

Balloon Fest 2021: Ship Shape & Sailing On is slated for Saturday, May 8, at the Historic Courthouse (1 Historic Courthouse Square, Hendersonville). The “Sea Creature Swim” parade will begin at noon at the Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO (511 N. Main St.). For more information about the event or to learn how to donate to the cause, visit

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