LOS ANGELES â Smiley clouds have floated through the art of Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III ever since they started working together, in 2002, under the peppy name FriendsWithYou.
Their first website had a cloud you could click on to make a rainbow tongue appear. Their 2010 animated short âCloudyâ featured lighthearted clouds making music and rain. And as the artists have grown more successful, theyâve made public sculptures and a range of merchandise, from smartphone covers to limited-edition lamps, in that familiar fluffy form.
Now their signature character, Little Cloud, is making its biggest appearance yet, as a 30-foot-wide balloon in this yearâs Macyâs Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
âCulture has a way of materializing what we need, and what we need is uplifting and optimistic,â said Mr. Sandoval, 42, slouching on a candy-colored bean bag chair next to Mr. Borkson, 39, also on a bean bag, in their downtown studio here in October.
âLittle Cloud is a simplified symbol of light and hope, a happy little gift,â Mr. Borkson said with an earnestness that is unusual, if not heretical, in the art world.
The annual Thanksgiving Day spectacle draws some 3.5 million people to the parade route and 50 million viewers to their screens, according to the paradeâs executive producer, Susan Tercero. Itâs the seventh time Macyâs has invited contemporary artists to design a balloon for what it calls its âBlue Sky Galleryâ series.
âWeâve worked with a range of artists, from Jeff Koons to KAWS,â Ms. Tercero said. âThis just felt right â their cloud is very cute and whimsical. And what better balloon to create than a cloud?â She said it measured about 22 feet tall and will rise, depending on winds, âanywhere from 30 to 40 feet into the air,â with the help of 38 handlers to keep it from flying away.
The parade fits the populist, art-for-all ethos of FriendsWithYou, which also has two Manhattan gallery shows opening this month. Starting Nov. 17 at a Canal Street pop-up, The Hole will display the artistsâ new bronze sculptures, which combine high and low to comic effect. (Giacomickey is a Giacometti-like figure with Mickey Mouse ears.) Two days later, Arsham/Fieg Gallery will show their colorful 3-D plasteline paintings, which riff on pop culture favorites like Bart Simpson and Elmo.
But the artists have found broader audiences through their lines of sculptural toys marketed for âkids and kids at heartâ and projects like their trippy animated television series for children, âTrue and the Rainbow Kingdom.â Itâs now in its second season on Netflix, with another on the way.
âSome art is in its own echo chamber, speaking only to the art world,â Mr. Borkson said. âWeâre part of a wave of artists trying to affect culture on a deep and powerful level, like Jen Stark, Yung Jake, KAWS and Murakami.â
That would be Takashi Murakami, who had his own Macyâs balloon eight years ago and is a natural reference point, given FriendsWithYouâs animation interests and Japanese kawaii, or âcuteness,â aesthetic: Priscilla Frank, a HuffPost writer, once called the team part âMurakami, part Yoko Ono, part Chuck E. Cheese.â But one difference is their scale of operations. While Mr. Murakami has dozens of employees in Tokyo, FriendsWithYou currently has three people on its payroll here. (Thatâs not counting Mr. Sandovalâs 12-year-old daughter, who, he said, âcould send me a big invoice one day for being our R&D all this time.â)
âWe both really like making things; we like being in the studio,â Mr. Borkson said. Of the two men, heâs more likely to try to contextualize their work in terms of Nicolas Bourriaudâs theory of ârelational aestheticsâ or Alejandro Jodorowskyâs âpsychomagic.â At one point, he also insisted that Little Cloud was âa sweet gift of love but also gangsta and powerful.â Itâs âa strong and assertive way of spreading love,â he said.
Mr. Sandoval and Mr. Borkson were in their early 20s when they became friends in Miami, both feeling a little lost after attending local colleges. Mr. Borkson described a rough childhood in Plantation, Fla. â âWell, really, I was rough, not my childhood. My nickname was El Diablo,â he noted â and he left home by the time he was 14. Mr. Sandoval, whose father is the jazz musician Arturo Sandoval, described the trauma of fleeing Cuba with his family at the same age.
They ended up partying together. âWe were almost like ravers, doing these drugs to have an out-of-body experience, especially through music,â Mr. Sandoval said. âHow do we create these euphoric sensations, minus the drugs?â
They started by making plush toys, hand-sewn creatures that they called âamulets,â with a nod to their supposed healing powers. People were in the market for good luck, and Tower Records placed an order for 10,000 in 2002. In 2005, Bonnie Clearwater at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami gave them a show: They created what would become the first in a line of colorful, tactile museum playrooms. But museumgoers were not their only audience, and their gallery history has been anything but straightforward; various dealers, including Emmanuel Perrotin, Paul Kasmin, Jeffrey Deitch and Kathy Grayson at The Hole, have played roles at different points.
One of their leading advocates is not a gallerist but the musician Pharrell Williams, who spotted their work at Perrotinâs Miami gallery in 2007. He helped them publish a book, âWe Are FriendsWithYou,â with Rizzoli, and assists in producing âTrue and the Rainbow Kingdom.â
A main conceit of âTrueâ is that nature is alive and sentient. The series features its own cloud character, Cumulo, who helps the heroine, True, by whisking her to destinations like the Wishing Tree. Other characters include the Rainbow King, an omnipotent wizard who is âalso lovable and fallible, like a cute grandpa,â Mr. Borkson said.
Since partnering with the Toronto-based Guru Studio in 2012 to create the show, the artists have stayed involved with âTrueâ well beyond the pilot and are still designing new characters and writing premises for stories. âThey wanted to teach the ABCs and 123s,â Mr. Borkson said. âAnd we wanted to teach love and empathy.â
FriendsWithYou has also been hands-on in developing the balloon for the Macyâs parade, working to make a âfatter and cuterâ cloud form. The Macyâs design team suggested adding raindrop figures â costumed characters on the ground â which inspired the artists to add an inflatable rainbow.
âA rainbow is so magical,â Mr. Sandoval said. âFor us itâs this metaphysical and spiritual symbol about believing in something larger than yourself.â
The artists plan to carry the rainbow together, each supporting one end, so itâs also a symbol of their partnership. Or, as Mr. Sandoval put it, âI think if we combined our two brains together, weâd make one amazing sandwich.â