Mobile Carnival Museum Curator Cart Blackwell is fighting the same battle every museum encounters. He’s at war with complacency. He has to defeat the sense once visitors have seen the museum, they’ve experienced all it has to offer.
That’s why he’s spearheading new efforts in the Government Street facility. He wants to peel back the layers of pre-Lenten tradition he feels are unappreciated.
“You can tell the history of Mobile through Carnival and that’s what this does,” Blackwell said. “Our greatest living tradition has something for everybody and we can tell a larger story through its art and artifacts.”
Two series of quarterly exhibits have started, one thematic in nature. Its current incarnation — “From Silver Julep Cups to Plastic Roadies: The ‘Spirits’ of Mardi Gras” — surveys libations inherent to the party.
“We use nine cocktails to highlight 15 mystic societies through various drinking devices,” Blackwell said.
He listed such artifacts as a whiskey still seized the last week of Prohibition and a slave-built wine cellar rack. There are drinks like the screwdriver, beer made at the state’s first brewery in Mobile, champagne that entered through Mobile’s port, even a hair-of-the-dog tradition.
“Bloody marys feature tomatoes from our wonderful agricultural hinterland across the bay in Baldwin County. Harry’s Bar in Paris was where it was born and so many American expats were over there, including Alabama-born Zelda Fitzgerald,” Blackwell said.
Another indulgence comes from the hospitality industry of Mobile Carnival Association force majeure David Cooper. The Chrissie — one part vodka, one part Frangelico hazelnut liqueur and one part ice cream — is touted by Blackwell as Mobile’s “signature cocktail.”
“Have one and you forget your problems. Have two and you don’t even know what problems are,” he laughed.
Some of the artifacts have never been exhibited. There’s an Order of Myths (OOM) Sun Cup dating back to the 19th century Reconstruction era.
“For the first decade of their existence, members and their spouses were given a beautiful, silver whiskey cup but they discontinued it after a number of years because it got to be so expensive when they kept on having so many first-born baby boys,” Blackwell said.
It would seem a labyrinthine task, finding themes then discovering who in town has what pieces in their private collections. Pride in lineage was key.
“Mobilians love to showcase their family, their ‘people.’ It’s that foundational component in Mobile of ‘Who are your people, what do you drink and where do you go to church?’” Blackwell said.
The Selma native spent close to a decade with the Mobile Historic Development Commission before moving to the museum in early January 2018. Those personal connections are invaluable.
“Friends say, ‘Do you know Cart Blackwell? He’s the new young curator there. He’s not from Mobile but he loves this community and what generations of Mobilians have done,’” Blackwell said.
When the “Spirits” show concludes this month, the museum will highlight John Augustus Walker, a heralded artist whose most visible work is the Works Projects Administration-sponsored murals in the History Museum of Mobile. The St. Louis School of Fine Arts alum designed Carnival floats for 40 years.
Walker’s mentor, artist Edmond C. de Celle, is featured after the muralist’s three-month run. De Celle worked in various media, earning a stellar reputation for his costumes, and exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair.
“He and his wife, Katherine, ran an atelier. They did fashion, painting, the murals at Murphy High School. He did WPA work and was part of the Greatest Generation, mapping the port before, during and after the war,” Blackwell said.
Other exhibits on tap look at the culinary arts and at sculptor Judy Rayford, who revived Joe Cain for modern times.
The concurrent tier of exhibits focuses on each of the city’s 73 mystic societies, parading and nonparading. A different group is featured each quarter. The art they’ve commissioned and inspired is prominent.
“Two newer organizations have said, point-blank: ‘We don’t have any art at this time.’ I told them they’ve got about a 10-year to 15-year period to do something, so they’re contacting artists,” Blackwell said.
Though related arts are front and center, the curator thinks service is at the heart of the organizations.
“The OOMs are more than folly chasing death. These are civic leaders that accomplished this. For the Infant Mystics, these are people who built this city,” Blackwell stressed.
Obviously excited, the curator is confident he can keep public interest piqued.
“As long as they keep me on, I’ll keep coming up with ideas,” Blackwell said.