When the Order of Myths (OOM) parade wraps on Fat Tuesday, it will end merriment for thousands of Mobilians, but begin something else just as treasured: rest.
That goes triple for the creatives behind the scenes, the artistic crews who bring Mardi Gras to life. The pre-Lenten party pads artists’ wallets while sticking to their strengths.
“There’s a lot of locals involved in it: Ben Kaiser, Devlin Wilson, Ginger Woechan, Lisa Warren, Jason Fowler, Patricia Richardson, Julia Greer Fobes,” Mobile Arts Council Director Lucy Gafford said.
Gafford should know. She worked for Mardi Gras impresario Ron Barrett around the time she was in college. She was in set design, making everything from papier-mâché dragons to framework for ballroom bars to giant fountains, whatever was needed.
Her flexible, part-time job ran three months and mostly consisted of studio work, a few days a week, six or so hours at a time. She found it speedy but satisfying.
“The turnaround time is real quick so you don’t get too attached to what you’re doing. It’s not as strenuous as creating a painting in your own studio. It’s a different type of work, kind of disposable, meant to only be shown once or twice and then painted over again,” Gafford said.
One of her workmates in Barrett’s facility has been at it far longer. Brad Fuller began there in 2000. Initially hired on part time painting backdrops, he would put in 40 hours a week during Mardi Gras season.
After a foray into the restaurant business from 2006 to 2016, Fuller returned to full-time work for Barrett. Previously, he started in November as the Camellia Ball drew closer, and then continued for four months. Nowadays, he’s constantly in whirl around the Mobile area.
“I do flowers, giant weddings, McGill-Toolen and Spring Hill College’s graduation, proms, the ballet, movie sets,” Fuller listed. “I’ve been here so long I know how [Barrett] thinks and he just says, ‘Do it,’ and I can. There’s a real freedom to it.”
Mardi Gras is still their apex. Fuller listed four papier-mâché makers, three painters, two florists and a carpenter working at that moment.
“After Mardi Gras, we shut down until August. Only three of us will work here full time,” Fuller said.
The weekend after Fat Tuesday, Barrett’s downtown warehouse will be filled with their own party as workers indulge in costumed revelry.
Other year-round work goes on beyond Barrett’s enterprise, in the societies’ float barns. Fuller tried his hand at float-building but didn’t cotton to it.
“You had to be there 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., no lunch and it was in a hot warehouse in June, July. It wasn’t for me,” Fuller said, laughing.
Natalie Johnson is a little more receptive. She has helped fashion the rolling craftwork for about seven years now in service to one of a handful of companies who handle the duty for the parading societies on both sides of Mobile Bay.
“I work 40 hours. We get a few weeks off after the parades then start on the next season,” Johnson said.
Known locally for her movable sculptures — walking figures at ArtWalk and the giant monster in Joe Jefferson Players’ “Young Frankenstein” — Johnson is a natural for the work. She eschews the painting and sticks mainly with shaping the “props” mounted to the float shells.
Each crew has roughly six sculptors and four painters. She said two to five people paste.
Johnson explained a process where a 3M adhesive is applied to lightweight cardboard that can then be molded into shape. She estimates each front prop as taking a week of eight-hour days.
“It will stick to itself, not your hand, and you just start adding like clay. You can cut it back off if you want, a lot like clay,” Johnson said.
A papier-mâché layer is last. Its neutral tone takes paint better than the adhesive’s bright hue.
“The painting is kind of the last thing that gets done. They’re still painting OOM’s right now,” Johnson said.
She doesn’t know how many colleagues hold art degrees, but design, sign-making and other commercial experience is there.
“We don’t really get recognized but every one of us are artists. It’s nice to be employed in something creative. If you have a need to be constantly making something, it’s nice to get paid for it,” Johnson said.
Does she watch her work in action?
“I normally don’t go to the parades. I did the first couple of years, but I just don’t like crowds,” Johnson said.
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