Building the Magic of Mardi Gras

Extravagant. Shining. Iconic. When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of the floats. As thousands flock to Mobile every February for the annual display, Mirth Artists spends the entire year working to make magic. Go behind the scenes as designers get ready for the revelry and see how the larger-than-life creations come to fruition.

Right Ben Kaiser stands amongst the sculpted work for the Knights of Revelry that awaits painting. Kaiser is in his second year as CEO of Mirth Artists. He is currently in charge of building floats for the Knights of Revelry, Crewe of Columbus and Infant Mystics. Photos by Chad Riley

It’s physical labor and artistry all at once. A months-long effort leads to a dazzling display of craftsmanship lasting a night on the streets and forever in Mobile memory. When most of the city has put away the season’s finery and resumed everyday life, the artists begin anew. Mardi Gras is not just a season for the crew at Mirth Artists LLC. It’s a year-long reality. “Our only time off is when our floats are rolling down the street,” says Ben Kaiser, Mirth Artists’ CEO.

Kaiser credits most of his Mardi Gras experience growing up to marching in the Alma Bryant High School band during the parades. He didn’t know then that he would one day have a bigger role in the pageantry. It all started with a social media post of his paintings. A former float builder saw them and put Kaiser, then an art student at the University of Montevallo, in contact with Steve Mussell, the then-CEO of Mirth Artists who had been in the business for over 40 years. Mussell offered Kaiser, then in his final semester, a job working on floats which transitioned into a full-time job after graduation. “I skipped walking in my graduation to move back to Mobile,” Kaiser says. He has been running Mirth Artists for about two years now, a role he describes as a learning curve. “Luckily, I have Steve Mussell as my mentor,” says Kaiser. “I have big shoes to fill, but I strive to make sure our floats are the best in Mobile.” 

Mirth Artists currently builds floats for the Knights of Revelry, Crewe of Columbus and Infant Mystics. Parade themes and float designs are annual decisions, with concepts sometimes discussed years in advance. Kaiser works with the design chair of each organization to develop the vision and themes for the parades, and each one is different when it comes to plotting ideas. “Some give us a lot of artistic freedoms while others want to stick to what they know,” he says. It is typically only a few weeks after the last Mardi Gras parade that Kaiser gets the green light on designs for the upcoming season. Around this time, his artists clean off the different components of past floats from the revelry. About a month after the last parade, they begin stripping down the floats from the previous season. The artists then assess which pieces and materials can be recycled to decorate the current year’s floats. 

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Having materials on hand is crucial. Kaiser orders new resources to supplement anything they can recycle. They are at the mercy of the supply chain, which sometimes makes for an interesting process. “We can’t give away where we get all our resources from, that’s top secret,” Kaiser says. “But we have had delays in the past, especially during COVID. There was a time when we couldn’t get pre-mixed paint, so we had to get tint and mix each color by hand.” Though Kaiser and his team learned resilience from the experience, they would not like to repeat it. Recycling eases the pressure somewhat. They occasionally reuse full pieces, which the artists ensure look different than they did the year before. “We always do touch-ups on pieces we reuse and give them a fresh paint job to look new,” says Kaiser. “We never want the same themed float to roll out. In some cases, the reused props will be stripped down to the basics, so we are just using the shell to fully redesign a brand-new piece.” Cardboard makes up the bulk of the floats along with lumber, chicken wire, screws, glue, staples, paste and paint, ordinary tools that bring a colossal structure to life. “Something that surprises most people is that our figures for our floats are mostly hollow,” says Kaiser. “Many people think they are filled with chicken wire, but really, the chicken wire is only used on the sides, or ‘cloud,’ of the float.”

Pieces from past floats are saved after the parade is over. Artists will sometimes reuse, restructure or completely dismantle float pieces from past years to create a new piece for the current year’s floats. Kaiser’s artists have a penchant for bringing mythical creatures to life.

Mirth Artist employees handle a full spectrum of jobs, including sculpting, painting and pasting. Before they set to work, Kaiser briefs the crew on the parade concepts, detailing each float’s design and what needs to be made from scratch or modified for reuse. Workers split up to handle sculpting work in each barn. Kaiser tries to pair each one with a task that best utilizes their strongest skills. Sculpting is the longest part of the process, lasting several months. While the artists often sport coats and gloves at the beginning of the process, the float barn fashion turns to sweat-soaked shirts in the summer as artists spend full days intensely focused on perfecting every detail. After all, a solid foundation is key to successfully executing a design. “We have to be up for the challenge of sculpting large-scale works while primarily using paper products and glue,” says Kaiser. “We need to know not only how to bring an animated character to life but also how to make caricatures of recognizable people.” The Mirth Artists strive to make figures, be they real or imaginary, look as accurate as possible, leaving no question to onlookers about who is atop a float as it rolls by.

Though the work is often immense and challenging, some things make the process more manageable. “The best way to get a truly beautiful float is to design a float that the artist will enjoy making,” says Kaiser. “We tend to enjoy building creatures: Krakens, sea serpents, unicorns, dragons, werewolves, vampires, fairies, aliens, Bigfoot. The floats where we get to be imaginative are always so much fun.” On the flip side, there are a few themes that artists are admittedly less enthused to tackle. “A sports float is the hardest,” says Kaiser. “Though we try to make it seem visually interesting, there will never be a ball field that can hold a candle to the display of an epic dragon, a mythological figure or any imagery we come up with. In a world of fantasy and magic, cartoons and characters coming to life, it only takes one football field to ruin the mood.”

“The mood” is the main priority. What is Mardi Gras without the glitz and glamor of a spectacular mythical creature or larger-than-life figure? One of these iconic figures is the Crewe of Columbus’ sea serpent, the Isabella. The organization’s centennial last year called for Kaiser to reimagine the staple while maintaining a sense of the classic Isabella crowds know and love. “I felt like it was an opportunity to make history,” says Kaiser. “The Isabella was one float I remembered seeing when I marched in the band in high school.” Kaiser kept the core attributes intact and applied a heightened sense of imagery to the redesign. With glowing eyes and sharpened features, the Isabella debuted more ferocious and fanciful than ever. “That float is almost as old as me, and I was just so proud of its transformation,” he says. “Even when I cut open the main serpent head, throws and cups from years past fell out. It felt like opening a time capsule.”

Left Kaiser was tasked with reimagining the Crewe of Columbus’ iconic float, The Isabella. He relied on his love of fantasy and a detailed approach. “You can even tell how old each head is based on its teeth,” he says. “The younger it is, the cleaner I made its teeth. If it’s older, the teeth will be dirtier.” Right An artist applies aluminum to the side of the float for a sparkling effect as it rolls down the streets. 

The sculpting timeline varies by year and by float. Each one is different, requiring a unique approach and allotted time depending on the complexity of a design. However, once November rolls around, most artists shift to tackle painting as the last sculpting work is wrapping up. They must be able to employ different painting techniques, using airbrush along with traditional brush techniques. They also must be able to paint while standing on ladders. By late December, sculpting work is typically fully complete and everyone is involved in painting. Leafers glue gold leaf and silver aluminum all over the floats. Handmade and hand-applied decorations are characteristics of Mobile Mardi Gras floats.
“We take a more artistically traditional papier-mache approach,” says Kaiser. “You won’t see television screens or floats overly covered in bright rope lights.” Given his background in sculpting and painting, Kaiser is conscious of maintaining authentic expression throughout the process. “Some of the bigger New Orleans floats have machine-made figures where a robot carves foam blocks, but I take pride in the fact that our figures were sculpted by our artists’ hands using paper and glue,” he says. “I never want our floats to look too manufactured; I want our floats to show off the artistry of this traditional craft.” Attention is paid to every detail, each aspect used to enhance the overall image. Even the lights are thoroughly thought through. “I don’t want to rely on overly lit floats covered top to bottom in bright lights,” explains Kaiser, “so when we light our floats for night parades, I don’t let the lights be the spotlight, but instead use them to spotlight our artwork.” The painstaking effort is worth it for the dramatic, fantastical effect.

Left The artists work with a rainbow of paints, mixing colors by hand to match certain shades. Right A steady hand is key to float painting.

The arts in Mobile are front and center during Mardi Gras. The season has a huge economic impact on the Port City — estimated to be over $400 million annually — and floats that crowds flock to the city to see come with a price tag. “Some floats go for around $120,000 to $150,000,” says Kaiser. “A newly constructed float can go anywhere between $15,000 to $35,000.” The unique Mobile tradition not only provides spectators and float riders with merriment and fun but also provides creatives with stable jobs that serve to celebrate our local legacy of revelry. “As a kid, I was told by so many that you can’t have an art career,” says Kaiser. “I remember my father telling me to not pursue art, that I would become a starving artist. I want to show people, and children passionate about art like I was, that there is a place for art here, that art is needed in the world, and you can be a part of that magic.” For Port City artists, it doesn’t get much more magical than Mardi Gras. When the floats finally hit the street, the artists let out a sigh of satisfaction, able to see the result of their work in full color, bold and triumphant. Kaiser wants to capitalize on that. “I want to have something like Mardi Gras World here in Mobile so that the city can be seen as this artistic hub,” he says. “I would love for the world to know more about Mobile Mardi Gras and the artistry that rolls down our streets.”

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