In a large warehouse along the Mississippi River, rows of massive papier-mâché heads fill a tucked-away corner. Papa Smurf and Uncle Sam sit across from the Wizard of Oz and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Willie Nelson’s head peeks out of a crowded nook. Not too far away is Tow Mater from Cars and a pair of life-size Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Football players and combat soldiers share the space with nursery rhyme characters, historical figures, politicians and pop culture icons.
This is where Mark Olivier (BA ’02) comes for inspiration.
As the prop shop manager at Blaine Kern Studios, Olivier oversees the team of artists who bring Mardi Gras to life. His crew of 20 sculptors, painters, flower-makers and papier-mâché experts create nearly every sculptural piece that decorates the more than 500 floats for 21 Carnival krewes.
Directing the “largest kinetic art show in the world” each year is an intensely creative, demanding, high-profile job — one that Olivier, a former oilfield worker from Houma, never could have envisioned for himself. But as he works in the midst of Carnival’s pomp and circumstance, the Nicholls art graduate never loses sight of just how important his unique career is.
“Our work represents Louisiana for what it is — a place that prides itself on hospitality,” Olivier says. “When I see the crowds of people lining up along parade routes, I know the impact of what I do — ultimately, I’m an ambassador for Louisiana.”
You ought to go see the Mardi Gras
Carnival season never ends at Blaine Kern Studios. As the sun sets on Fat Tuesday, the staff is already gearing up for next year’s parades.
Once krewes decide on their parade theme, make requests for special float elements and approve the art director’s sketches, Olivier takes overthe project and directs its completion from start to finish. His office walls are plastered with hundreds of float sketches. For each one, he breaks down what’s needed — flowers, sculptural pieces, painting, float construction.
Walking through the warehouse’s eclectic inventory of nearly 10,000 props, Olivier assesses whether his staff will need to build a new sculpture or refurbish an existing one. New props are typically carved out of oversized Styrofoam sheets, covered in papier-mâché, painted and sealed. More often than not, old props are transformed into something fresh. With a little carving, painting and creativity, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz becomes Linda Blair from The Exorcist. Pee-wee Herman morphs into the Tin Man. King Henry XIII shifts into Disney’s Beast.
“You definitely have to have an imagination to do what we do,” says Olivier, a multitasking master who keeps a mental file of all props on hand.
Since 1947, Blaine Kern Studios has been the leading parade float builder, serving the major New Orleans krewes as well as many out-of-state parades. And Mardi Gras is only part of the business. Olivier’s prop shop also creates sculptures for theme parks, casinos and marketing campaigns for major companies such as Chick-Fil-A, M&M Mars, Coca- Cola, Walt Disney and Universal Studios.
Even when it’s not Carnival season, their work is always under the microscope. The large warehouse of Blaine Kern Studios doubles as Mardi Gras World, a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction where visitors can walk through the artists’ workshop and watch Olivier and his team on the job. It was on such a visit to Mardi Gras World that Olivier himself became interested in the industry.
Do watcha wanna
Inspired by his father, Dennis, who ran Terrebonne Hardware for 40 years, and his mother, Paula, who operated a ceramics studio out of their home, Olivier initially set out to run his own business. After graduating from South Terrebonne High School in 1988, he took his entrepreneurial spirit to Southeastern Louisiana University and majored in economics.
Two years into his studies, Olivier found himself worn too thin. Working two jobs while juggling schoolwork proved impossible.
He left Southeastern; married his high school sweetheart, Angela Dupre (BSN ’94); and landed a job with Bowen Oil Tools. His career move made it possible for Angela to earn her nursing degree from Nicholls and for Olivier to occasionally take college night classes.
Laid off after nine years in the oilfield, Olivier was forced to rethink his future once again. Angela suggested that he return to school.
“I said, ‘You know what? I want to be an artist.’ Whether it was right or wrong, I was doing something for myself,” says Olivier, who had long enjoyed drawing. “It didn’t matter if I did something with my degree or not; it was what I wanted to do.”
In the Nicholls art department, Olivier found encouraging faculty members who pushed him to try new art mediums and techniques. He experimented with bronze work in the campus foundry, which had just been developed, and volunteered to help assistant art professor Deborah Lillie with her blacksmithing work at the E.D. White Plantation. He assisted in cleaning up the university’s newly acquired Chauvin Sculpture Garden and almost changed his major to art history after becoming energized by art professor Deborah Cibelli’s lectures.
“Occasionally, for some of the props we create here, I’ll go back and find out the history behind it,” says Olivier, who still references his textbook from Cibelli’s class. “Mardi Gras floats often tell a tale, and we want to make sure we’re being pretty accurate.”
Olivier finished his degree with an emphasis in sculpture but wasn’t convinced he’d find a job in his field.
“I just figured I’d do art for myself or maybe teach,” recalls Olivier, who eventually landed a job as the director of the South Louisiana Center for the Arts in Houma.
On a random weekend trip with Angela to the Riverwalk, Olivier spotted a big sign advertising Mardi Gras World.
“What’s Mardi Gras World?” he asked his wife.
As the curious couple took the colorful tour through the Carnival workshop, Olivier was awestruck, wondering if he, too, could work there. He asked the gift shop cashier about employment, but she cautioned that few spots were available. Olivier applied anyway.
They all asked for you
A year later — long after forgetting about his application — Olivier came home to a message on his answering machine from Barry Kern, president and CEO of Blaine Kern Studios. Kern was interested in hiring Olivier to work in the fiberglass fabrication department. Three days into the job, however, Olivier was completely caught off guard when he was asked to run the entire prop shop.
“I was extremely nervous,” he recalls. “Mardi Gras was right around the corner, and there was still a lot of work to be done. I was trying to learn what todo, how to do it, what my job was, what everyone else’s job was. I was trying to do it all.”
Mardi Gras 2004 came and went quickly, but the hectic pace stretched into another month as the prop shop worked on floats for a Nickelodeon theme park parade in California. By the time he stopped to catch his breath, Olivier realized that he had dropped 21 pounds.
“From that point on, I knew we had to pace ourselves differently,” he says. “I had taken a lot of notes on what I thought could be done better, and we just started improving from that day forward.”
The nearly overnight transition from new employee to manager came with a series of uphill battles. He had survived his first Mardi Gras, but he had yet to gain respect from his employees — some of whom had been with the company for three or four decades. Olivier referred back to lessons he learned watching his father run Terrebonne Hardware.
“My father’s thought process was, ‘They can’t complain about you if you’re willing to do what they do.’ I don’t just sit up here in this office; I will get down there and sweat and bleed with these people to get the job done. It’s hard to complain about a boss who does that.”
Olivier doesn’t assume he always knows better but asks his employees for their suggestions. He admits when he’s wrong and apologizes when he “goes Hulk,” as his co-workers describe his easily excitable temper in high-stress situations. What truly has helped Olivier gain favor — with his co-workers, bosses and clients — is his blue-collar work ethic and ability to find creative, costeffective solutions that meet high expectations. Both were qualities Olivier had been unknowingly acquiring throughout his childhood.
“If a man came in to Terrebonne Hardware with only $6 and needed a part that cost $12, my dad’s goal was always to find a solution that cost less than $6 for the simple fact that he was going to gain a customer for life. I took that to heart.”
It’s Carnival time
It’s the Friday before Mardi Gras 2013, and the usually neatly shaven Olivier is in full-beard mode. Since November, he and his team have been working overtime preparing for this week. Shaving and other nonessential activities have been put on hold to squeeze in every detail that must be perfected before parades roll. After all, Blaine Kern Studios only survives by meeting its deadlines, Olivier points out. Asking for even a one-day extension is not an option.
As Olivier helps secure harnesses on the Krewe of Zulu’s floats, he receives a call that his help is needed down at the Superdome. For the first time since its completion, the nine-unit “Pontchartrain Beach: Then and Now” megafloat is being taken for a test drive. Before more than 250 riders from the Krewe of Endymion board the world’s largest float on Saturday, Kern’s staff must ensure that the 365-foot-long behemoth can snake through the parade route and into the Superdome.
Now in his 10th Mardi Gras season, Olivier is one of the few people who know how to instruct tractor drivers to turn into the Dome — without damaging or derailing the float.
“Here’s the moment of truth,” artist Jessica Callac says as the float turns onto Dave Dixon Drive. “If something happens to it, it’s going to be a long night for us.”
Juggling conversations on his CB radio, walkie-talkie and cellphone, Olivier calmly but firmly relays instructions back to his artists in the warehouse while receiving reports from logistics staff monitoring the float’s progress. As the units begin entering the Superdome opening, Olivier stretches out his arms, measuring how much wiggle room is left between the float and the Dome’s wall. The float gets a little close on the right side, but slowly all nine state-of-the-art units safely glide onto the Superdome floor.
Olivier is relieved but not yet relaxed. Blaine Kern Studios remains a fairly small mom-and-pop operation, requiring everyone to wear many hats during Mardi Gras. Olivier and his artists aren’t tethered to their workstations; they help along the parade routes — making sure the floats get to their starting point and make it to the finish line safely.
One year, the “Old Man River” float in Endymion passed too close to a curb, ripping off a large chunk of its prop. The resourceful Olivier had 20 minutes to piece the sculpture back together with paint and whatever materials he could find in the street, mainly cardboard boxes.
“A lot can go wrong during a four-hour parade, and we have to do our best to fix the problems under pressure, do it safely and keep things moving along,” he says. “On the street, everybody’s safety depends on what our company does, so the stress level is high.”
By the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, Olivier finally begins to relax. Well, sort of.
“Ash Wednesday for me is heaven,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m happy to go to Mass, get my ashes and reflect upon all the activity of the past few months. I can take a deep breath, knowing that we basically have a year to prepare for the next Mardi Gras season.”
And what will the next Mardi Gras season be like? Well, that’s the fun part of the job. No year is ever the same.
“What will be the next big thing? I’m not sure,” Olivier says. “Whatever you can dream up and be willing to pay for.
— Written by Stephanie Detillier Verdin, publications coordinator
This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.