Barry Kern’s family name is synonymous with Mardi Gras, but the president and CEO of Kern Studios says someone else deserves to be even better known among parade-goers: Manuel Ponce.
You may not know the name, but if you’ve been to Mardi Gras parades in the past 30 years, you’ve seen Ponce’s work. As the leading float artist for Kern Studios, he is responsible for conceiving and drawing designs for floats that appear in many of the biggest parades, from Alla to Zulu.
The list of krewes that will feature Ponce's work this year includes Rex, Endymion, Bacchus, Orpheus, Hermes, Babylon, Iris and Caesar. He has created iconic signature floats for nearly all of them: the Orpheus Leviathan, Rex's Butterfly King, Muses' red shoe and new Kong family floats for Bacchus that premiered last year.
The final weekend of Carnival is here, kicking off on Thursday as the pioneering ladies' superkrewe Muses rolls down St. Charles Avenue.
“Manuel is just prolific,” Kern said. “There’s no one who matches him. We pride ourselves on having the best of the best when it comes to float designers, and Manuel is the best — period.”
He's also known for his technique. While computers and robots have revolutionized the process of float construction, Ponce still does his work by hand.
“I think that most of the krewes want to see the work done by hand,” he said. “Mardi Gras is very traditional. There’s something very antiseptic about computer-generated designs.”
Ponce’s work begins with the parade theme.
“Typically the theme comes from the krewe, either the captain or someone who is an art director in the krewe,” he said. “Usually I get a float title and then a list of ideas for each float. I’ll start doing rough sketches, and then we kind of whittle those down. Once those are approved, then I’ll start working on the designs and working with the prop department (at Kern Studios) on figures and props for the front of the floats.”
While the entire process is collaborative — with designers, artists, craftspeople and krewe members working together — without Ponce it’s literally a blank canvas. “At the end of the day, he’s the guy who puts pen to paper, and that’s step one,” Kern said.
Henri Schindler, who works closely with Ponce as artistic director for Rex, Endymion, Hermes and Babylon and who has written several books on Carnival, said Ponce has earned a place in history among Mardi Gras’ most gifted artists.
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“I think he’s the best since Louis Fischer,” Schindler said. Fischer was known for her work designing and drawing parades for Comus, Momus, Proteus and Rex from the 1920s through the 1970s.
Schindler began working with Ponce in the 1990s, when he began designing the Rex parade. “In addition to being extremely talented, Manuel is so easy to work with," Schindler said. "We’ve worked together so long now that he understands what I’m looking for, which makes the process so enjoyable.”
Like most of the artisans at Kern Studios, Ponce works year-round, drawing floats not only for New Orleans’ Mardi Gras but also for events and corporate clients around the world.
“It’s a large body of work,” he said. “I always try to keep ahead of the game, so by the time this year’s parades roll, I’m already well underway on floats for 2020.”
Ponce, whose ponytail and slim build make you doubt him when he says he’s 53, works from a studio at his home in Gretna. He shares it with his wife, Denise, and a menagerie of animals — cats, turtles and a parrot named Kiwi, who often sits in the studio with him while he works.
As a student at Archbishop Shaw High School, he was an inveterate doodler. There was no curriculum for Carnival floats at the University of New Orleans, but he earned a degree in graphic design.
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A classmate, Blaine Kern Jr., helped connect the aspiring graphic artist with Blaine Kern Sr., the man known as “Mr. Mardi Gras,” who founded his float-building company in 1947. Ponce got a part-time job painting floats and props for Kern and his sister Betty Rae, who designed the Krewe of Mid-City parade. He became a full-time Kern company employee in 1989.
While the colorful sketches of his floats are suitable for framing as works of art, Ponce knows that most people get only a quick glance at his designs as they roll down the street.
“It passes and you’ve got maybe a minute or so, or not even that sometimes, for people to take in the whole float,” he said.
Asking him to pick a favorite float of the thousands he’s designed over the years is like asking him to pick a favorite child.
“I think the Leviathan float for Orpheus is definitely on that list, though,” he said. “It raised the bar because I think that was the first time they used fiber optic lighting. The animation, the smoke — I think everything with that design was fantastic.”
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Ponce has also drawn posters and proclamations for several krewes. Each year he draws the images that are minted onto thousands of doubloons.
If you see him at a parade, don’t look for him in front, clamoring for those doubloons, however.
“When I go to the parades, I usually like to stand in the back and observe," he said. "I enjoy seeing people’s reaction to the floats and to my work. It’s humbling.”