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Story #12Carnival ArtistsMobile, AL

I hear people say they have deadlines, but in a pinch, those deadlines can be moved.  My business isn’t like that. Those parades are going to roll, and if I’m not done, my reputation is done.

Craig Stephens is on a deadline, a deadline he and his team have spent the last three hundred and sixty-five days working feverishly to meet. If Stephens is rattled, however, he certainly isn’t letting it show.

For the past twenty-five years, Stephens has been building floats for the annual Mardi Gras parades held in Mobile, Alabama. As it turns out, that’s a year-round occupation. Stephens employs a full-time staff of 12 artists, and he still has to bring in additional people every year as the event approaches.

When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of New Orleans. But while the Big Easy certainly receives the most publicity for their Mardi Gras festivities, bragging rights over exactly where the tradition started are a subject of considerable dispute. Just visit The Museum of Mobile, which proudly lays claim to the oldest organized Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States, beginning in 1703. “Mardi Gras began in Mobile,” says Stephens. “People in New Orleans don’t like to hear that, but it’s a fact.”

Describing Carnival Artists as a niche business would be an understatement. It is more of a niche within a niche, and all highly secretive. Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations revolve around mystic societies, some of them hundreds of years old. These private groups fund the parades and masked balls that make up a spectacular two-week celebration. Carnival Artists is itself similarly secretive; Craig has no website, no social media presence, and none of the other trappings of Small Business in the digital age. He markets his services by simply building his product. It’s an all or nothing proposition.

“It’s an enormous responsibility,” says Stephens. “These organizations have anywhere from 200-400 members that would be very disappointed. Everyone says they have deadlines, but my deadlines are actual deadlines. The parade is going to roll down the street whether my floats are done or not. And if my floats aren’t done, then I’m done. It’s a small town, so I can never let that happen.”

There are approximately 70 mystic organizations that put on events in and around Mobile over the two week Mardi Gras celebration, which culminates each year on Fat Tuesday. For Carnival Artists, that translates into seven parades and roughly 79 floats. Tonight is the Order of the LaShe’s parade, for which Stephens has built 18 floats – all designed by a Mobile-based illustrator named Brent Amacker.

It’s late afternoon, and parade coordinator Billy Ankerson arrives at Stephens’ workshop. Ankerson directs the workers as they pull the floats out of the float barn and begin hauling them downtown to the parade site. The floats have a wooden substructure, and Stephens has constructed the sculptures themselves with a technique he calls “contact mache.” He takes recycled cardboard and coats it on both sides with contact cement, then tears the material into pieces and molds the basic shape of the float. With the form built, the next step is to add another layer – this time with a thinner grade of paper like poster board. He adds a final layer of paper mache, and then paints the floats in the bold colors that will make them stand out at the parade.

Stephens was an art major in college, and he certainly understands the challenges of working with creative types. “Managing artists’ personalities can be tough, but one of my favorite parts is when you get five or six artists in here working together as a team, which they are not use to doing. There is an energy about it. They start playing off each other, and it gets competitive.”

While the crew at Carnival Artists puts final touches on a few unfinished floats, The Order of the LaShe’s parade is in full swing. Just across town, revelers line the streets and shout for beads while masked women parade past on Craig Stephens’ floats. In just a few days, the last float will have gone by, and the last bead will have been tossed. Stephens and his crew will finally be able to take a break. It won’t be long before he has to start all over again.

Photos by Christina Clusiau

  • As the parade winds down and the crowds disperse, Craig Stephens and his team at Carnival Artists continue to work. For them, the party isn’t over until the last float is out the barn door on Fat Tuesday.

  • An Order of the LaShe’s float, built by Carnival Artists. Mardi Gras attracts close to one million people to Mobile, Alabama each year.

  • While crafting the ornate floats, designers must be mindful of leaving plenty of places to hang beads.

  • A young man waves to a float as it rolls past. Mardi Gras represents a significant piece of Mobile’s tourism industry every year, and the parades themselves play a huge role in bringing people to the city.

  • Parade routes run right through Mobile’s city center, including a stretch down their very own “Canal Street.”

  • Another happy customer shows of her bounty of beads from Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama.

  • As night falls, masked participants await the start of the parade.

  • Revelers line the streets of Mobile in advance of the parade. Invitations to Mardi Gras events often contain the phrase “costume de rigueur,” where men are required to be in full dress, complete with tails, a white bow tie and white gloves, and women wear a full-length evening gown.

  • Billy Ankerson, the Order of LaShe's parade coordinator, directs workers as they pull the floats out of the float barn to be hauled downtown to the parade site.

  • An Order of the LaShe’s float exists the barn.

  • A float gets a final application of gold leaf.

  • Scott Foundey paints an alligator in preparation for the weekend’s children parade.

  • Carnival Artists is not like most Small Businesses. They don’t have a website, and they don’t do social media. They market themselves by making spectacular niche products, and quite literally parading them the streets. Everything flows through owner Craig Stephens’ cell phone.

  • Mellissa Brown, an artist working with Craig, puts the final touches on a float. Carnival Artists maintains a year round staff of 8-12 artists with additional help brought on as Mardi Gras approaches.

  • The floats are built on top of farm trailers using a combination of wood, recycled cardboard, poster board, paper mache, paint and gold leaf. The process is a year in the making, all leading up to the Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama.

  • Two members of the Carnival Artists crew converse under the watchful eye of a large paper mache deer. The Mardi Gras parades in Mobile are funded by Mystic Societies, whose membership is kept secret.

  • Craig Stephens, right, is a parade float builder based in Mobile, Alabama. For this year’s Mardi Gras festivities in Mobile, he and his crew at Carnival Artists have built 79 floats.

Q & A

We sat down with Craig Stephens, owner of Carnival Artists to get his perspective on being a Small Business Owner.

Growing up, did your folks impart any small business knowledge or entrepreneurial wisdom that you carry through to this day?

Yes, my grandfather always owned several small businesses. He always told me when I was a kid, you want to make money, don’t work for someone else. Work for yourself.

What do you see as your role in the community there in Mobile?

I started out as a sculptor and painter. Then I was offered a chance to build a float, so I became a float builder.  Then I got a chance at a parade, so I became a parade builder.  At this point, I manage the company and just try to keep it going.  It’s like being a Director on a movie set. Make sure everything is going right.

Do you feel a lot of responsibility for how the parades come off?

Yes, it’s an enormous responsibility. These organizations can have anywhere from 200-400 members that would be very disappointed. Everyone says they have deadlines, but my deadlines are actual deadlines. The parade is going to roll down the street whether it’s done or not and if it’s not done then I’m done. It’s a small town; it’s a small little city I would say. So I can never let that happen.

What does the future both for you professionally and personally?

I’m trying to figure that out. I am not sure at this point. I hope to continue to expand the business.  I just turned 50. I’ve been doing this for 25 years on my own, the company is 25 years old… we’re doing different stuff every year, different workload every year. It’s quite tricky trying to figure all this out in the schedule. Everything and all the deadlines. So this time of year I’m pretty much a nervous wreck, will be for the next six weeks.

Business Details

Proprietor: Craig Stephens
Mobile, AL
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