Armed with spray can, Jersey City native Brian Donnelly began creating street art even before he reached St. Anthony’s High School and adopted his now-famous alias, KAWS. Fast forward 20 years, and he’s about to debut his most visible work to date, a balloon in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
High over Broadway and Central Park West will float one of Donnelly’s best-known creations, a Mickey Mouse-inspired character he calls Companion. Over two decades, Companion has evolved from a collectible toy to a 16-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture that Donnelly debuted in Hong Kong and showed at Connecticut’s Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2011. Since then the sculpture has toured the globe, and the artist has designed limited-edition bottles for Hennessy cognac, album art for Kanye West, and collaborated on projects with The Simpsons, Comme des Garçons and designer Jason Wu.
In 2010, parade executive producer Amy Kule invited Donnelly to conceive a helium-filled Companion. While his is not the first balloon by a one-time street artist—that honor goes to Keith Haring’s posthumous 2008 Figure With Heart—this is the first character to be shown hiding its face.
“Companion is more of a low-key character and embarrassed to be stared at,” says Donnelly, 38. “It’s a character very fitting our times, when a lot of things are stressful.”
Contemporary artists have been a staple of the Macy’s parade since 2005, when then executive producer Robin Hall invited Tom Otterness, a sculptor whose work is often commissioned for parks and subway stations, to design a balloon. Jeff Koons and Tim Burton have also designed Macy’s balloons.
“I was a big fan of what KAWS has done in the renegade style, and his transition into the pop arts has been an incredible trajectory to watch,” says Kule. “He not only worked with us on the balloon, he designed the poster art, our parade tickets, various elements [for] macys.com.” Donnelly also did the banners that will be wrapped around a subway car shuttling between Grand Central Station and Times Square—making him an underground artist once again, even as he soars to new heights.