Beauty from the Basics

Growing up in New Orleans, I always took the existence of Mardi Gras parades for granted. I never wondered where they came from, or how they were made, or even who paid for them; the floats simply showed up. Every year, like clock-work, you got the same parades on the same nights. There’s an old joke in the city that kids grow up thinking Mardi Gras is a national holiday and are ridiculously confused when they find out it isn’t. Carnival as a child just is.

But recently I’ve spent a lot of times behind the scenes, and a lot of time explaining the process of Mardi Gras to locals and out-of-towners alike. And so I’ve learned a lot about all of the work that goes into creating this year after year after year. I’ve been to over 20 years worth of parades, ridden in 4, and have been working almost 24/7 with floats for the past few months, yet I’m finding something new to love every day.

“Leviathan,” a signature float that has ridden with the Krewe of Orpheus every year since 1998.

Lately what I love most about Mardi Gras is that the vast majority of these floats are made with what we would all think of as basic materials. Styrofoam, tag board, wires, flat interior latex paints, wood, iron poles, paper mache, glitter, fabrics, colored lightbulbs, and fringe – all of these materials are used in constructing the floats and the props that decorate them. In fact, other than fiberglass and fiberoptic lights, pretty much everything that goes into a Mardi Gras float is “low-tech.” That just makes it all the more impressive.

The artists who work in these studios are amazingly talented. Every day I watch them take huge slices of styrofoam, glue them together with insulation foam, and then start carving away with knives, saws, and sandpaper. Bit by bit, an extraordinarily detailed prop emerges. And I do mean detailed.

Where else do you get to see the Venus de Milo next to the Hamburger Helper mascot?

Where else do you get to see the Venus de Milo next to the Hamburger Helper mascot?

The props are then covered in paper mache so that you have a smooth surface on which to paint. Brown craft paper + flour and water = seamless surface. Then the prop is primed and painted. And just like the sculptors, the painters go down to the tiniest detail. Everything from wrinkles to cloth folds to the whites inside irises are colored in. One of my favorite props (a fiberglass Jeremy Shockey) has entirely accurate tattoos covering his forearms.

I never cease to be impressed with the talent that goes into making such beautiful floats from such basic materials.

And just so you know, the best part about working in one of the warehouses where all of this is stored is that everything is always being moved around. Every day I show up for work and there are new props and floats out on the floor; today Harry Potter was playing Quidditch in between a giant giraffe and Woody from Toy Story. One of these days I’m going to have an epic game of hide and seek in our 250,000 square foot warehouse. If I miss a scheduled post, you’ll know it’s because I’ve been lost amongst the giant paper mache gorillas. Send help.

 

 

 
If you ever find yourself in New Orleans, take the tour at Mardi Gras World and see all this in person.

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