“Suddenly a dazzling glow of light fills some street leading to a main thoroughfare; and strains of distant music rise upon the night. Silence falls upon the mighty throng; every neck is craned — every eye is strained toward the coming Mystics.”
Writing in “Creole Carnivals” in 1890, Mobile Register editor Thomas Cooper De Leon goes on to describe the crowd’s ephemeral encounter with Carnival floats. “In the shimmer of a thousand lights,” the floats appear “gigantic and glittering with all that the art of the builder, the painter and the decorator can supply.” Then, “leaving only beautiful memories in its wake, it passes through the night.”
A century later, in 1994, George Widney writes in the Press-Register that Mardi Gras “rests upon the shoulders of artists and artisans who create the themes, floats, costumes, scenery and related folderol of Mardi Gras parades and balls.” He calls these artists “traffickers in dreams and masters of make-believe” who craft “the never-never land of Mardi Gras in Mobile.”
Indeed, a beautiful float has the power to astound, to render us quiet for a pause, amid the clamor for beads and MoonPies. So to better understand the quiet magic of Carnival floats, I dove into the life and work of one of Mobile’s most renowned float designers: John Augustus Walker, best known for the colossal murals he created for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), some of which adorn the lobby of the History Museum of Mobile.
Born in 1901 and raised in Mobile, Walker worked 12-hour shifts for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad by age 19. He was transferred to St. Louis in 1921, where he attended the St. Louis School of Fine Arts in his off-hours for the next six years. Walker found inspiration in the styles of his professors, and also in the murals he observed in the Missouri State Capitol, painted by Frank William Brangwyn.
But it was Walker’s travels to Cuba and Key West, where he worked construction, that solidified his style, noted for a vibrant use of color and sense of movement. According to WPA interviewer Frances V. Beverly, Walker credited “the distinctiveness of color in the Cuban landscape” with developing his “color sense” and “treatment of lights and shadows,” adding that “in Key West, he found so much of intriguing interest in the lives of the fisher folk and never tired of watching them at their work, with the silvery gray nets, on the deep golden green water, and the blue sky and the tossing white-capped waves against the hawser. It touched his artist’s soul.”
In 1929, Walker returned to Mobile to pursue art full-time, sharing a studio on Royal Street with artist Edmond de Celle. Walker, a decade younger than de Celle, studied under him briefly, and de Celle called him “a natural-born artist.” The two became friends and would be regarded as the most significant float designers of the era in Mobile.
To support himself, Walker did commercial work: advertisements, billboards, portraits, and Christmas cards for clients that included Smith Bakery, Sam Joy Laundry, Bellingrath Gardens and the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. He also taught commercial art at Barton Academy. In 1935, the WPA commissioned Walker to create a series of murals for Mobile’s Old City Hall. The tenth and final panel of the series is called “Fraternity,” “Wherein the carnival spirit of the people is illustrated and Mobile is commemorated as the Mother of Mystics.”
Walker served as the float designer for the Infant Mystics from 1935 until 1967. In some ways, float design reflected mural design: operating from a central theme and organized to tell a complete story. As De Leon explained in 1890, each group of floats is “a rounded whole in itself. It is a perfected drama or a book; and each succeeding picture is a complete scene or chapter.”
Further, De Leon writes, floats exist at the center of what makes Carnivals on the Gulf Coast “artistic forms of almost magical beauty” rooted in a Creole “love for beauty, brilliance and display” and “born out of the wedding of Taste and Poetry.” Floats are thus intended to articulate art, and according to De Leon, IM floats in particular “made Mobile’s streets glitter like the gardens of the Gods, with subjects peculiarly their own; ever treated with the generous use of every aid that money could command at the behest of taste.” Walker’s IM floats half a century later were no exception.
In 1935, the first year Walker designed them, the IM floats took the theme of Treasure Island, and “first presented to Mobile the full-round effects of John Augustus Walker’s designs” according to Caldwell Delaney and Cornelia McDuffie Turner in “Infant Mystics: The First Hundred Years.” In 1936, Walker designed both the floats and maskers’ costumes in a Tarzan theme. “The parade was fresh and vigorous in presentation,” state Delaney and Turner. “The second float, “Graveyard of the Elephants,” gave a hint of the artistic heights to which Walker was to bring the medium in the future.”
Indeed, Walker’s star continued to rise. The Press-Register described the IM’s 1937 theme, Hunting of the Snark, as “endowed with dazzling color, movement and a moral.” Builders employed “rich and colorful materials never before used in a Mardi Gras float and [a] total of 700 electric lights.” The lighting, “joined with a surrealistic interpretation, brought float design to its most satisfactory state of theatrical illusion,” write Delaney and Turner.
In 1939, Walker created a “tour de force” with a Festival of Tulips theme and revamped the cat of the IM emblem float: “The old humping and twitching alley tom was gone, and a monumental crouching feline of silver leaf took his place.” In 1940, Walker’s Vanity theme featured animal, bird, and reptile masks made in Paris and two gigantic jack-in-the-boxes with heads that popped out and back. In 1941, the last parade before their suspension during World War II, Walker’s Over the Rainbow theme showcased eight floats in eight colors; a giant bluebird was a crowd favorite.
IM floats in particular “made Mobile’s streets glitter like the gardens of the Gods, with subjects peculiarly their own; ever treated with the generous use of every aid that money could command at the behest of taste.”– Thomas Cooper De Leon, Editor of the Mobile Register, from “Creole Carnivals” in 1890
Top John Augustus Walker surveys the Infant Mystic’s Duck Float in progress in 1939. Bottom “On the Zuider Zee” float on the streets of Mobile, 1939. S. Blake McNeely Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama
Walker resumed designing IM floats in 1946 and continued until his death in 1967. His designs, done in pastels in his signature vivid colors, provide a glimpse into how he communicated his artistic visions to the float builders, who made them a reality. In penciled block letters, Walker indicates the light colors for each part of the float, specifying “red lights to flash” in the eyes of a mouse, “amber lights” in a golden coach, “blue and white lights interspersed” in ocean waves, and a “green funnel light” inside a witch.
And his instructions extend beyond color. On the New Year Toast float, Walker writes: “bells to swing” and “white balloons rise from glass.” There are indications for “windows cellophane,” a “duckling to move up and down,” and on the St. Patrick’s Day float, “harps to rock fore and aft.” On the Christmas float, he writes, “tree in the round to be adorned as near real tree as possible” and for the North Pole: “clear varnish seals for wet effect.”
These directives reflect both Walker’s desire to make the floats as real as possible and his understanding of the glitz and glamour needed to make the floats truly shine. “The success of this wagon depends on amount of silver leaf used,” reads one note. Another: “Gold leaf required to fully express this wagon.” George Washington’s Birthday calls for “as much gold leaf as possible on eagle insignia,” Halloween for “silver flitters” on the moon, and a duck’s black back is to be “scumbled with silver.”
John Augustus Walker brought 2-D drawings to life, like “The Terrible Dogfish” float from the Infant Mystics parade, seen here as a sketch and a carnival reality. Courtesy The History Museum of Mobile
Walker’s designs also indicate the positioning and descriptions of the riders. One design requires a “raised deck for maskers” and another a “sunken deck to accommodate four men.” On There Were Dwarfs in the Catskills, Walker writes, “Cast shortest men on this wagon.”
On several designs, Walker wrote plainly, “See me.” And he did collaborate with the builders. Webb Odom, a legendary Mobile float builder, most often carried out Walker’s visions. The two men were good friends, according to Walker’s son, John, who recalls visiting the float barn with his father many times, often on weekends, to check the progress. “There was some back and forth,” John explains. His father “participated in the construction. Because sometimes taking it from the paper to a float you encounter difficulties that you might not think of. So there had to be some interpretation to get from two dimensions to three.”
Yet, as much as Walker enjoyed float design, to support his family, he returned to the railroad, working 3 – 11 p.m. shifts and spending mornings and early afternoons on his art. In 1955, the family moved to a house on Pinehill Drive with an outbuilding Walker used as his studio. Painting, according to John, was what Walker “really wanted to do.” And though his float designs tended toward grand and epic scenes from history and literature, his paintings gravitated to themes of everyday life, with a particular affinity for workers and the waterfront.
“Mostly he painted for the enjoyment of creating the paintings and sometimes he sold them and most of the time he didn’t.”– John Walker, son of John Augustus Walker, on his father’s art
Looking back over 30 years of Walker’s float designs, Delaney and Turner offer some highlights: a golden coach with maskers inside, a giant sphynx, two knights in armor on horseback, an enormous magnum of Champagne from which the cork popped and bubbles floated up into the night, a working roller coaster and Ferris wheel, a 16-foot teepee, a submarine. “John Augustus Walker created all the [IM] parades and balls of this era,” they write. “Surely no man in the history of Mobile has given more pleasure to her people.”
Emily Blejwas is the director of the Alabama Folklife Association and author of “The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods.”