Carnival, The Art of it All

In all its gaudy grandeur, Carnival utilizes — and manifests itself in — every form of art.

Goat sculpture and colorful Mardi Gras painting
Above The Strikers Goat is no mere barnyard beast. This boy is the most valuable of Carnival art works. Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau. Left Edmund deCelle’s “Folly Chasing Death.” image courtesy the History Museum of Mobile, from the Collection of the Order of Myths.

Carnival, with Mardi Gras at its height, is an economic engine, a jolly good time and, most importantly, a family affair. Mobile’s greatest living tradition is a cultural phenomenon that unites Mobilians and showcases our fair city at its very best. Carnival has long been known for its many artistic expressions. Art in all its forms — fine, decorative, textile, literary and performing — shines during Mobile’s most special season. 


When thinking of fine art, most people think of paintings. Oil-on-canvas depictions of iconic Carnival traditions, spaces (gallery and street scenes) and emblem figures abound. One of the most important Carnival paintings is Edmond deCelle’s “Folly Chasing Death.” Commissioned by the Order of Myths (OOMs) in 1967, the hundredth anniversary of their founding, “Folly Chasing Death” depicts the Order’s iconic emblem and epitomizes the whimsical spirit behind Carnival. The painting is Edmond deCelle’s masterpiece. For fifty years, he designed floats, costumes and tableaux for the OOMs, Carnival’s oldest continuous parading society. “Folly Chasing Death,” which is rarely exhibited, was reproduced as a part of the Joe Cain installation of the History Museum of Mobile’s “History of Mobile in Twenty-Two Objects.”  


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Sculpture is another branch of the fine arts. When it comes to sculpture, “The Strikers Goat,” a monumental wooden carving of a horned specimen of that species, can be likened to “The Winged Victory” of Mobile Carnival art. This jaunty beast is also the second oldest known piece of Mobile Carnival art. Dating from 1870, “The Strikers Goat” is important for more reasons than its size and age. He (the boy is anatomically correct) is a testament to the early artistic impulses of Mobile’s mystic societies. That such a large and symbolic piece was commissioned is outstanding. “Striker,” as the goat is nicknamed, is the second-largest piece of wooden Postbellum sculpture in the American South. He is now on long-term loan to the Mobile Carnival Museum.

a collection of silver pieces
Right In their earliest years, the Infant Mystics gifted silver to a lady when she married a member of their order. One of the few complete sets known to survive is in the collection of the Mobile Carnival Museum. Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau.


The decorative arts take many forms, including silver, jewelry and other luxury items. These precious goods comprise the most numerous of all Carnival art forms. A delicious silver berry set commissioned by the Infant Mystics (IMs) in the 1870s is a fine example of Carnival object d’art. In their early years, the IMs bestowed a young lady with sets such as the berry service when she married a member of the mystic society. Very few services survive as a complete set. The Mobile Carnival Museum has the only documented full service. 


Textiles easily rank as the most popular of Carnival’s artistic expressions. From majestic trains worn by Mardi Gras royalty, to couture gowns worn by ladies attending balls to the costumes of maskers and ball leaders, Mobilians love to look the part for all Carnival occasions. Both the Mobile Carnival Museum and the History Museum of Mobile have extensive collections of trains: Julia Greer Fobes of Revelry Bloom’s splendid creation for the 2021 Queen of the Mobile Carnival Association and Pat Richardson’s fiery work for the 2022 King of the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association have dropped the jaws of visitors to the Carnival Museum since their display in late Spring of 2021. In addition to Fobes’ and Richardson’s artistry, the work of Kim McKinney and Suzanne Lyell, Johnny Weaver, Cristal Hall and Maggie Utsey can currently be seen in the museum. In the realm of the costumes, Fobes’ Malificent gown, wings and headdress for the Nereides leading lady of 2022 is truly unforgettable. It, too, is on display in the Carnival Museum.

Royal attire of the queen of the Mobile Carnival Association, Laura Rutherford Adams
The royal robes of Laura Rutherford Adams, Queen of the Mobile Carnival Association court of 2021, are a tour de force created by Julia Greer Fobes of Revelry Bloom. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Parades and Tableaux –
Unity of All Arts 

Parades and tableaux are Mobile’s most comprehensive artistic expressions. They unite the fine, decorative and textile arts with the literary and performing arts. Architectonic — but in no means static — for a brief period of time, parades and tableaux are a moving vision of merriment.  

Parades designed by Edward Ladd, Bradford Ladd, Barbara Ann Guthans, David Schmohl, Brent Amacker and others have caused streets to come alive – literally and figuratively. Steve Mussell, Craig Stevens and others realized these masterful designs in papier-mâché. Designers have worked with themes that range from classical mythology to medieval myth. Indeed, artists have translated everything from forms of world literature to comic strips into paper-mâché. One of Edward Ladd’s designs from 1998 took Barnum and Bailey’s Circus as its theme. Circus performers and elephants were in the parade and at the ball. An elephant on the streets of downtown Mobile — now that there calls for a Roll Tide! Costumes and floats kept to the theme, as did favors and pins. 

The tableaux, the culmination of the parade-ball experience, continues the comprehensive artistic emersion. For over forty years, Ron Barrett’s designs for tableaux have brought the best of Broadway and Las Vegas to Mobile. 

Tableaux are not the only sights of elaborate dance. Everyone has seen a rider who thinks, for one night, that he or she has better moves than Michael Jackson! The dance teams and bands, some from far out of state, have the real rhythm. Mobile’s own Excelsior Band is the ultimate master of the Port City’s Carnival beat. 

Celebratory Summation

The art of Carnival is as varied as it is fun. Experienced during the season itself or year-round, the many forms of Mardi Gras art are dual creations of enlightened Mobilians and incredibly talented artists. Mobile’s 2023 Carnival season promises to be among its most brilliant. Enjoy the art, in all its forms, of the greatest show on the Gulf!

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