Artists paint, illuminate Mardi Gras floats in Uptown den

Spattered with paint and dressed in a snow jacket to stay warm while working in the cavernous den, Lisa Browning applied silver paint to highlight the vivid colors on Prometheus' Mardi Gras floats. Leafing is the final touch, she said.

While this year's Carnival parades have only just begun, krewes are already in the process of deciding on themes for 2012. Conceptualizing, designing and building floats have become a year-round process. Royal Artists Inc. used to shut down in August because the heat in the warehouse can seem "unbearable," said Browning, but no more. She's learned tricks like donning a wet handkerchief over her head to make it through the hottest months.

In April, krewes generally choose a theme for the following year before Mardi Gras. By May, they review drawings so the production can begin. By summer, "all the designs will be in the can" said Richard Valadie, manager of Royal Artists Inc., the company that builds Chaos, Proteus and Krewe d"Etat parade floats.

Painters and "leafers" are busy now detailing Proteus floats, which will roll out of the Uptown warehouse with krewe members onboard to travel down Napoleon Avenue the Monday before Mardi Gras. The building is packed with 43 floats, up to 17 feet high, parked close together. Several of Royal Artists; workers are in Mobile, Ala., finishing up the Mystics of Time and Conde Cavaliers parades, which aren't as far along.

"I've always been an artist," said Browning, who has painted Carnival floats for 25 years. "But you don't need an art degree to do this kind of work."

Most of Royal Artists' workers live nearby and hold down other jobs to supplement their contract wages. Browning also makes dolls for the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.

"Richard has a vision of what needs to be on the float," she said of Valadie, who studied graphic design and sculpture at Louisiana State University, but trained under founder Herbert Jahncke Jr. to learn the parade's signature style. Jahnke founded the company in 1975 and created all the plates until just a few years before his death in 2007. He established the parade's look, modeling Proteus' current designs after drawings made 100 to 150 years ago. Valadie still uses pen and ink to illustrate the design concepts he shows the krewes.

Mythological float designs were adapted from watercolors by 19th-century illustrators that are among the special collections at Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University. One of the city's oldest parades, Proteus' current floats are built atop the original chassis and wooden wagon wheels previously pulled by mule teams. It is believed the wagons originally carried bales of cotton.

The floats are made of wood covered by muslin, which is lighter than canvas and can withstand numerous paintings from year to year.

"The themes of Proteus are always carefully chosen and are presented with such beauty," wrote Robert Tallant in his 1989 book, "Mardi Gras As It Was." Proteus parades exhibited "exceptional quality," Tallant added.

"Royal Artists is about maintaining the traditional style" Valadie said. "It is important to maintain consistency so the parade looks coherent," he said.

The King float, unchanged since the 1920s, is one of Proteus' three signature floats, not influenced by the current year's theme.

"Just the designs are beautiful works of art in their own right," said Leon Cahill Miller, head of the Louisiana Research Collection, which is uploading 2,000 Mardi Gras images to the Internet for study by social historians as well as Carnival historians. Tulane has the largest collection of Mardi Gras paper and ephemera in the world. Digitizing it "allows people around the world to get a real sense of the beauty of Carnival," Miller said.

Dan Dalrymple is one of a half-dozen painters and an equal number of other artists who work part-time for Royal Artists. The artistry of the floats interest Dalrymple, who has also worked on theatrical scene design in New York.

His artistry includes carpentry, illustration, cartooning, sculpting and painting. Because he can multi-task, Dalrymple usually rides in the property truck to fix problems that can crop up during the parade.

The awkward papier-mache and foam sculptures have to be transported to the warehouse. Occasionally there are mishaps. Once, a whale fell off the back of the float and crushed the hood of a car following close behind, Dalrymple said. Another time, a treasure chest was lost on I-10.

But most of the time, the work goes smoothly. "This is a fun job to have," he said. "We try to bring something vivid and festive to the carnivalesque to the street."

By Mary Rickard, Contributing writer