Sister Mary Gregory had always known that the ways of the Lord were mysterious. But what she saw in the heavens on the morning of August 7 was a bit unnerving all the same. "I looked out my window, and there was what looked like a huge, fat black man coming down out of the sky," says Sister Mary, a resident at the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Merion, Pa. "I stood there in utter amazement—I was sure I was having a vision."

She wasn't the only one. In recent months people across the country have spied strange, vividly colored behemoths drifting peacefully above urban landscapes. Despite first impressions, the objects are neither UFOs nor signs from on high. They are André Heller's flying sculptures, a trio of fancifully shaped hot-air balloons that the Viennese artist hopes will "create unforgettable emotional moments which touch millions of people." Since July the sculptures have dropped in on 14 cities, including Jersey City and Detroit, and will visit at least 12 more by December, when their U.S. tour ends.

Heller, 40, hit on the idea of airborne art two years ago. "When I was a child, my father was always promising me things like fountains of gold or comets," he explains. "When they never materialized and I asked him why, he would say, 'Of course that's impossible.' Later, I found out so many grownups never believe things are possible. My balloons are a way of making promises reality."

It hasn't been easy. After sketching shapes he liked, Heller put together paper models of a crescent moon, a spiky sea anemone figure he calls Dream Lab and a green-and-purple dragon fish. For $65,000 apiece the models were rendered in rip-stop nylon on a huge scale, ranging in height from 69 to 119 feet. The trickiest part, says Heller, was "creating chambers that would hold the air. We had to work for months before we had a solution." A computer came up with a honeycomblike interior design. After the balloons' debut tour over 20 European cities was a hit in 1986, Heller, financed by the city of Vienna, decided to head for the States. But first he retired the dragon fish in favor of an abstract black balloon he christened Kiku, for his girlfriend. "I like it because it's so different from the others," he says.

Heller began his oddball art career writing poetry at 15. Listening to Bob Dylan records ("The man had no voice, yet he dared to sing") convinced him that he too could make it on vinyl, and he has made 14 pop albums to date. He has also published 12 books of philosophical musings and staged a fireworks extravaganza called Theatre of Fire in Lisbon and Berlin. Since June, Luna Luna, a mod art amusement park of his invention and filled with pavilions designed by Keith Haring, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein and others, has been doing a booming business in Hamburg, West Germany.

The balloons, however, seem closest to the artist's heart. When his inflated menagerie soars above a new city, Heller occasionally goes along, gazing down with his pilots at the cheering, waving earthlings below. More often he stays on the ground, sharing the enthusiasm of his audiences. "I looked out this morning," a Philadelphia woman exclaimed to him, "and I saw the moon going down Bryn Mawr Avenue!" No childhood fancy could be better than that.

  • Contributors:
  • Andrea Fine.