He even borrowed his motto – “transcend the bullshit” – from original “merry prankster” Ken Kesey.
Today, Balazs’ playful concrete, brick, wood and metal creations – particularly his Riverfront Park fountain – delight downtown visitors.
But one bit of mischief almost got him booted out of college, which might have ended his career before it began.
Fortunately, Balazs’ obvious potential outweighed his indiscretion, and three decades later he was given Washington State University’s Alumni Achievement Award “for sharing his exceptional talent in all mediums of art, bringing pleasure and joy to the public and great pride and distinction to his alma mater.”
Quite a feat for someone who claims, “I’ve never had an honest job.”
An exhibition of Balazs’ work titled “Old & New” is showing at Coeur d’Alene’s Art Spirit Gallery, 415 Sherman Ave., through Feb. 6.
During a recent interview, Balazs (pronounced Blaze) discussed the business side of his art career, what he’s most proud of, and how he conjures names for his eclectic pieces.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Balazs: In Westlake, Ohio, a little farming community near Cleveland.
S-R: How were you introduced to art?
Balazs: When I was around 8, my mother took three of us kids to lessons at the Cleveland Art Museum every Saturday. We’d draw, paint, putter with clay, and I was smitten.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Balazs: Mathematics. But I pretty much knew I wanted to pursue art. Back in the seventh grade, my contribution to the war effort was to draw large pictures of the three bad guys (Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito), divide them into tiny rectangles, and have kids pay to cover the squares with war stamps.
S-R: Did you learn about art in high school?
Balazs: To the extent that they gave us pictures to color and told us to stay in the lines.
S-R: What did you do after high school?
Balazs: I signed up to attend a junior college in Chicago. Then that summer we took a trip around the country, and my folks fell in love with Spokane. While I was in Chicago studying mathematics, they decided to move here. So after I finished my first year, I followed them, enrolled at Washington State and switched majors.
S-R: When did you start selling your art?
Balazs: A gang of us formed a club and auctioned off our watercolors and drawings to earn a little change. I also did posters for dances and fraternity functions, and made jewelry. And I connected with (Spokane home furnishings retailer) Joel Ferris while I was still in college, and he introduced me to buyers in Seattle and Portland.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Balazs: George Laisner, one of my Wazzu professors. All of the guys except the head honcho were very nice to me, but George was the one who really thought I was going someplace.
S-R: It seems like making art and the business of art require different skills. Did you take any business classes in college?
Balazs: No. I made a big push to get the art department to talk about how to set up a business, but they weren’t interested. My wife, Rosemary, is much better at business than I am.
S-R: Where did you two meet?
Balazs: At the Comstock Pool after my first year in Pullman. My folks lived nearby.
S-R: Did Rosemary attend Washington State?
Balazs: No. Her parents weren’t well off. After we married in 1950, we moved into a $12-a-month cabin with no bathroom or hot water, and Rosemary got a job in a Pullman bank. She was our breadwinner for quite a long time.
S-R: Did she also help with your fledgling art business during college?
Balazs: Yes. I stole a classroom key so we could make stuff after hours. Someone found out, and they almost threw me out of college. But a couple of professors said, “For Christ’s sake, leave ’em alone. They’re not doing any harm.”
S-R: What did you do after college?
Balazs: Our first child was born the day after I graduated. My folks had gone back to Ohio by then, so we moved in with Rosemary’s parents and I set up a workshop in their basement.
S-R: How long before you felt you could earn a living as an artist?
Balazs: Not for a while. Almost every year, one of us would say to the other, “We should quit.” One day we swore we were going to give up, but a buddy of Rosemary’s who ran a restaurant said, “Hell, Rose, you can’t do that! People like me who have to work nine hours a day need to know there are people like you out there following their passion.”
S-R: Has that passion ever waned?
Balazs: Never … never. I still have to go out to my shop every day, even if just to walk around in the debris.
S-R: When did your career finally feel stable?
Balazs: When our twins went off to college in 1975, and we could afford to pay their tuition.
S-R: Were there other milestones?
Balazs: When I turned 70 (in 1998), Gonzaga gave us a show at the Jundt, and we made enough that year between the show and other sales to report an income of $100,004. (laugh) And we’ve done pretty well ever since.
S-R: Did the recession hurt your sales?
Balazs: No. Maybe that’s because whenever money gets tight, I tend to produce smaller things that people can afford.
S-R: Generally speaking, how has your work evolved?
Balazs: During the ’50s, a bunch of modern architects came to town, and because most of them skied, I befriended them. Until they started dying, they were a very good source of income. No matter what they wanted, I never said no.
S-R: If you hadn’t done something before, how did you know what to charge?
Balazs: Good question! (laugh) I tried to be fair, and my clients were always pleased with the end result. But I’ve never resolved what my time is worth on an hourly basis. Everyone tells me I don’t charge enough, but we’ve done alright.
S-R: When did you start making public art?
Balazs: In the ’60s, when Washington created an arts commission. We were one of the first states in the country to encourage public art. When there was a call for submissions and I had to produce a miniature version of my proposal, I always tried to do nice pieces, so if I didn’t get the commission, at least I had something to sell.
S-R: What’s your typical workday?
Until the last four or five years, I worked almost every day until 10 at night. Now I’m lucky if I can get in three or four hours a day.
S-R: What have you made recently?
Balazs: A sculpture for Spokane Public Radio. It was just installed outside their new headquarters (at 1229 N. Monroe).
S-R: You’re well known, and often we associate celebrity with financial reward. Has your career been lucrative?
Balazs: Not really, although it’s gotten better recently. I had a stack of old stencils I’d carved for making enamels, and someone suggested I have them framed and sell them. I figured they might be worth $200 apiece, but a gallery owner priced them at $800 and sold them all. Some of the stuff we used to sell for $10 now goes for $400 on eBay. And before our current show at Art Spirit even opened, someone offered to buy every piece.
S-R: What are you most proud of about your career?
Balazs: When we went to Europe some years ago, we saw buildings that incorporated pieces of older buildings. Then last summer we were driving around Gonzaga’s campus and saw a new building (the Boone Avenue Retail Center) that used a frieze I’d done for another building years earlier. And I thought, “Wow, I’m part of a historical tradition!”
S-R: Any favorite reactions to your art?
Balazs: One night I was installing a wooden mural – a bunch of quotations – in a Jewish temple in Tacoma. When I climbed down, there were a dozen or so people watching me, and they were crying. They were the Holocaust survivors who had paid for this thing. And I realized that when you have the capacity to touch someone’s life to that extent, it’s pretty sacred.
S-R: What do people ask when they discover you’re a professional artist?
Balazs: Once I was painting plein air with a group, and a man walked up and asked what I did for a living. I said, “This.” And he replied, “You mean you don’t work?” A lot of people think making art isn’t work.
S-R: What’s the story behind your iconic “Transcend the bullshit” design?
Balazs: Someone read that in a book in the ’60s and sent it to me, and I turned it into a poster. Fifty years later, it’s still my motto. Andy (Dinnison) at Boo Radley’s put my design on coffee mugs, and he keeps sending me money.
S-R: How do you relax?
Balazs: I used to ski. Of course, I didn’t relax – I went like hell. Later I got into sailing, and built two sailboats. If there’s a heaven and I get to do something, I think I’d rather build boats than sail them.
S-R: Last question: You often attach inscrutable titles to your artwork. The current show includes “Small Wreck” and “To Be Decided.” Where do the names come from?
Balazs: (laugh) They’re nonsense. I just like to confuse people.
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil at email@example.com.