Technically, the first Mardi Gras in the United States started in Mobile, Alabama. But New Orleans “really perfected it,” says Barry Kern, president and CEO of Kern Studios and Mardi Gras World. One of the most recognizable ways New Orleans has taken Carnival to new heights (literally) is through its humongous Mardi Gras floats, a tradition started in part by Kern’s grandfather in 1932. A single, humble float pulled by wagon has morphed into hundreds of floats in hundreds of parades year after year.
So how do float artists make Mardi Gras year after year? Kern Studios has a year-round staff of float artists, designers, and sculptors. Meet them all in our latest installment of the “Making Mardi Gras” video series.
Kern Studios Mardi Gras Float Artists Video Transcript
Barry Kern: “People will tell you, ‘Mardi Gras started here,’ or, ‘We were the first Mardi Gras.’ New Orleans: we’ve really perfected it. Everybody in New Orleans, everybody who’s part of this city, has a part of Mardi Gras.
“Mardi Gras World / Kern Studios is a business that was started 3 generations ago by my grandfather in 1932. He built a float on the back of a garbage wagon, and basically a company got built from that. From one float in one parade to hundreds of floats in hundreds of parades every year.
We’ve got a year-round staff of people who are always working on the next parades. We have the best artists and the best designers and the best sculptors.”
Ali McCrosky: “My mom started working here when I was 7 years old, so I kind of grew up here. And then after I graduated LSU in 2010, I started full-time sculpting big props.”
Kern: “We’ve got thousands of props and things that we’re in the middle of building and doing at all times. So it’s a constant process of planning, and challenging ourselves to really do better this year than we did last year.”
McCrosky: “When my mom started working here, there were still a lot of like cardboard and chicken-wire props being made. That’s only, like, 20 years ago. Now, it’s mostly styrofoam. That’s a really big evolution because, because of that we can make a lot more big things quickly.”
Kern: “Every year for the New Orleans parades alone, hundreds of floats have to be designed and built. What’s going to make the best parade? What’s going to make the best impact? What’s going to excite the people on the streets the most?”
McCrosky: “I’m making the Boogeyman right now for Orpheus. All you’re going to see on the float is going to be teeth and eyes and claws.
Each parade krewe, they come up with their own theme for the year. I’ll get the sketch and blow it up onto a 4-inch thick sheet of styrofoam. Then I’ll do as many silhouettes as I need to get the thickness. After that, it’s just a matter of chipping away at it.
After that it gets sent to papier mache. Just regular brown craft paper. Flour and water mixture. Cover the entire prop with that. If you don’t, the paint will eat away at the styrofoam, and it just doesn’t look good.
Then it moves over to the painters and they’ll paint it white: blank canvas. Then they’ll add basic colors and final details.”
Kern: “For me, I don’t get to look at a parade the way everybody else does, because I’m always looking at, ‘Ok, is it running on time? Is this moving well enough? Are those lights on?’ But I can see, when I am out there, I can see how the people react.”
McCrosky: “Any time I see someone say, ‘Wow that looks really cool,’ that’s really nice. Because you put blood sweat and tears into these things. From nothing, I’m bringing forth these 10-foot-tall things. Just seeing that it’s appreciated is really nice.”
Kern: “It’s not a regular 9 to 5 job, that’s for sure.”