“I grew up in Florence, across the river from Muscle Shoals. I went to Auburn and majored in beer and girls. It turns out that Auburn didn’t offer that major. I quit school and went home for a few months. My aunt taught at the University of South Alabama. I came down here in 1985 and realized that the only thing I excelled in was art. I majored in art and paid my way through school. I started a sign business and got a job with Steve Mussell building floats. The KOER parade in Fairhope became available when I graduated, and it was the first parade I made floats for. Carnival Artists took off from there.
Float building is a unique business and I have built the cardboard cartoons for 30 years. I employ a crew of ten artists, 15 closer to Mardi Gras, and I love working with them. Mardi Gras is about as high as art gets. It’s not just the visual art that we do, but it’s the music and the balls. Down to the crowd on the street and their interaction with rolling sculptures. A hundred thousand people will see our art in parades. That’s an SEC football game or a NASCAR race.
The deadlines are hard and fast in float building. The floats are rolling on parade day, and there is no extension. September 1 gives me a little jump. Halloween gives me a big jump. We don’t get Christmas Day off because we are working six to seven days a week by then. Almost every float comes down to the wire. We can’t be spraying things as the float pulls out of the barn, but I’ve come close. I’ve been in there at two a.m. finishing a float before they pulled it out of the barn at eight a.m. The stress and pressure at the end are hard. I know people are depending on me and failure is not an option.
The cancellation of parades was a big blow to our business. We finished up the floats that will now be used for next year. We only had two of our seven parades to rebuild for 2022. That wouldn’t be enough new floats to keep my staff employed. I lost sleep the last four or five months, racking my brain about how we could survive. I saw the yard floats built by friends in New Orleans to help artists and float makers, but didn’t know how to get it started in Mobile. A call from Lisa Valentine to do a yard float took care of that. I couldn’t believe the momentum and how quickly it took off.
I took every order with the objective of keeping my staff employed and building a new area of business for the future. This is exciting for all of us, and I think a new tradition was born. Now there’s a parade whenever you want one, day or night. You just have to walk, drive or ride your bike through neighborhoods around Mobile. People are asking if I build sculptures for Christmas and Halloween. I do now.
Float building is group art. The most gratifying part of the last few weeks is what happens after we drop off the sculptures and pull away. People keep decorating. Every time I drive by their houses, they look better and better. The floats are lit up so well that they look good even at night.
I am touched and grateful for the community’s support for my company, my crew and other float builders. But Yardi Gras and the Mobile Porch Parade became bigger than that. It shows the essence of community and creativity. We were all born as artists. Almost everything within the realm of human endeavor is a creative act. I have been amazed at the creativity that came out of this, especially from the folks who couldn’t afford a sculpture from us. You don’t need money to use your creativity and imagination. Mardi Gras has always transcended the woes of society. It is a part of Mobile’s identity and who we are. This year we kept the tradition alive and added a few new ones of our own.”
By story about Yardi Gras and an interview with Craig Stevens for Alabama Public Radio: https://www.apr.org/post/how-covid-19-led-yardi-gras-along-gulf-coast?fbclid=IwAR0_vTzWjluvePAR4_cybG4nrsV9VXm1Vg9BBiRqfV0RWi1X601-DZfknXA