Mardi Gras World is a living museum for an international festival as celebrated as it’s misunderstood. Daily public tours showcase the wide range of Mardi Gras themes from ribald to down home family friendly. While a guest is snapping photos and listening to the guide, artists are busy in the real work of creating Mardi Gras.
Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, falls on the day before Ash Wednesday marking the start of the 40 days of Christian Lent, but in New Orleans, Mardi Gras season begins on the Twelfth Night of Christmas January 6. That date just happens to be the birthday of the city’s patron saint, Joan of Arc. History, legend and real life often create everyday activities in culturally diverse New Orleans. At Mardi Gras World that legacy keeps 50 artists busy year round.
Mardi Gras expresses the uniqueness of a region that’s been home to Native Americans, Europeans, Hispanics and the displaced populations of French Canadians (Cajuns) and African slaves. There are variations of the celebration throughout the Gulf Coast of the United States, but New Orleans is the cultural center of Mardi Gras in North America.
Mardi Gras’ the gumbo of festivals, a mélange of cultural and social influences. It has traditions set by krewes, dozens of them, but it’s the individual themes chosen each year by the krewes that make Mardi Gras parades unpredictable fun. Yet the evolution of Mardi Gras as we know it today is an 1870s invention of New Orleans businessmen to honor the visit of a Russian prince. They created the Krewe of Rex, and the good times have been rolling since.
Mardi Gras World is a family owned juggernaut of monumental float designs. Founded in the 1930s by New Orleans artist Blaine Kern what started as painting random props for parade floats quickly blossomed into contracts with over a dozen of Mardi Gras most influential and historic krewes including Rex. Beyond parades, Blaine’s Kern Studios became the leader in creating “themed environments” for conventions, resorts and the media.
The krewes own the massive float infrastructures – the actual moving machines – but the decoration (the props) are usually rented from Kern Studios since themes change annually. Many props today start with a base of styrofoam. Often props are repurposed several times and Kern Studio artists make magic with such standard mediums as paper mache to create features. The larger than life dimensions of most props dictate spray painting as an efficient method, although meticulous brush painting may still be necessary creating elaborate detail.
Appropriate to the city’s nickname, the Big Easy, after touring Mardi Gras World guests are free to wander the massive warehouse admiring, photographing and watching the artists at work. On this New Orleans winter day one would never guess that the parades begin in a couple short weeks. By the end of January, Mardi Gras season is in full swing with weeks of parades, many showcasing the grandeur and fun of Kern Studio’s Mardi Gras World artistry.
Mardi Gras World, located on the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans, is open for tours seven days a week. Parking is available, but a free shuttle runs from several hotels and tourist locations in the city. Marvel at the results of one artist’s vision and absorb the spirit of America’s most unique festival season.
Mardi Gras World, 1380 Port of New Orleans Pl, New Orleans, LA 70130 – for the free shuttle call 504-361-7821