For Mark Olivier, it’s Mardi Gras every day

Mark Olivier oversees the production of larger-than-life props at Blaine Kern Studios, including the 17.5-foot-tall King Kong for the Krewe of Bacchus.
Mark Olivier oversees the production of larger-than-life props at Blaine Kern Studios, including the 17.5-foot-tall King Kong for the Krewe of Bacchus.

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.

Once part of Olivier's senior art show at Nicholls, the green locker now serves as general-purpose storage at Mardi Gras World.
Once part of Olivier’s senior art show at Nicholls, the green locker now serves as general-purpose storage at Mardi Gras World.

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.”

Carnival season never ends at Blaine Kern Studios, where Olivier leads the talented team of artists who bring Mardi Gras to life.
Carnival season never ends at Blaine Kern Studios, where Olivier leads the talented team of artists who bring Mardi Gras to life.

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.

Olivier juggles conversations on his CB radio, walkie-talkie and cellphone while coordinating logistics for a test run of the Krewe of Endymion's "Pontchartrain Beach: Then and Now" megafloat.
Olivier juggles conversations on his CB radio, walkie-talkie and cellphone while coordinating logistics for a test run of the Krewe of Endymion’s “Pontchartrain Beach: Then and Now” megafloat.

“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.


Lifelong desire

Mike Davis Home 2013 for Voila'!
Mike Davis (BS ’73) relaxes on the front porch of Desire Plantation House. Behind him is exposed bousillage, a primitive insulation made from a mixture of mud, moss and horsehair, that was common in French-Creole construction.

Tucked away on a run-of-the-mill residential street in Vacherie is a charming French-Creole cottage with a rich past.

Built in 1835 and purchased by Philippe Desire LeBlanc in 1863 for his bride, Adelaide, Desire Plantation House was owned by LeBlanc’s descendants until 1980 — when Mike and Claudette Davis purchased the 145-year-old extreme fixer-upper.

Mike, the university’s assistant vice president for facilities, has overseen countless building renovations, new construction and demolition projects during his nearly 30-year tenure at Nicholls, so tackling this daunting restoration project was such a familiar territory.

Mike traces his love for vintage architecture back to his student days at Nicholls, where he met his future wife. A native of New Orleans, Mike came to Thibodaux to play baseball and study business. Claudette, who had a passion for dance and a love of antiques, made the short trip to campus from St. James Parish to study art and English.

“My love for antiques, that later grew into historical renovation, started when I saw a beautiful young lady at Nicholls,” Mike says. “I found out that she liked antiques, so I played like I liked them too, just to get in good with her.”

Mike and Claudette were married in 1972 and began restoring Desire, their lifelong labor of love, eight years later.

“I still laugh at the thought of Mike, a true city boy, settling in my hometown. I think he really likes living in the country,” Claudette says. “We enjoy going on treasure hunts in New Orleans’ salvage yards and working on restoring the house together.”

Preserving the original design of the house, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, was important to the Davises. Each step of the ongoing project has been deliberate — the result of countless hours spent researching period architecture and collecting antique building supplies and furnishings.

“I intentionally left the exposed bousillage [insulation] and used the original paint colors — white with dark green and brick red,” Mike says. “We even researched the type of paint that was used during that period and created just the right shade of red by grinding brick and adding it to the paint.”

While painting the front porch, Mike discovered a bullet imbedded in the doorframe. Not exactly sure how or why it landed there, Mike says: “I like to imagine it was a fierce shootout between the North and the South, but honestly the homeowner could have been cleaning his gun on the front porch and it was accidentally discharged. I guess we’ll never know.”

More than three decades have passed since the Davises purchased the cottage. And, despite several additions and modifications, their work is far from over.

“In the early ’80s, when we first moved into the house, there was so much to be done,” Mike recalls. “After work and on weekends, we worked on restoring the house. During that time, we lived in the small back section, and our kids, Keith and Lenna, who were only 8 and 5 at the time, thought it was great to sleep on pallets on the floor!”

Over the years, baseball games and dance performances took priority over renovations, so work on the house would stop and start according to the kids’ schedules.

Now that Keith and Lenna have families of their own, the Davises spend most of their downtime completing the last major renovation to the house — a larger dining room where the entire family, which now includes four grandchildren, can gather for meals.

Mike believes in the old saying that you should always leave a place better than you found it. He has certainly done that at Nicholls. The impact Mike has had on campus is on display for all to see — award-winning renovations, state-of-the-art auditoriums, four new residence halls, and the list goes on and on.

And the impact he’s had on Desire Plantation House is no less impressive. The LeBlanc family clearly left their historical cottage in exceptionally capable hands.

— Written by Renee Piper, director of university relations

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.