Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – The Rex Organization prides itself on just that – its organization, and its role in preserving Carnival history with precision and attention to detail.
So it should come as no surprise that the last-minute details still being attended to, on the krewe’s new signature float – the Butterfly King – have some krewe members and parade artists burning the candle at both ends.
“What will come out of this process is magnificent, but it certainly is coming down to the wire,” said Rex official and archivist Dr. Stephen Hales, who has worked closely with the team designing and building the new float from the ground up.
In an interview Thursday morning, Hales said he hoped the finishing touches on the float would be, well, finished by Friday. He said that should give the krewe time to apply some final elements.
Hales has worked closely with the artists, designers and sculptors who are helping the krewe introduce the new permanent addition to the Rex float lineup. It features a large, almost imposing sculpted figure of a smiling king, with several animated features, including butterfly wings that will flutter as the float rolls down the route.
It will be float number five in the parade, following the familiar Boeuf Gras float and the LSU marching band. But that’s all Tuesday. It will still take a few more hours of work to come up with the finished product.
“The thing to remember about this whole process is that it is art that is complex enough and rich enough that you have to give it the time it needs to develop,” Hales said. “It really has been a painstaking but elegant process.”
Hales said the float has been more than a year in the making, like much of Mardi Gras, and at least nine months in terms of actual construction. He and other Rex officials worked closely with sculptor Jonathan Bertucelli, whose family has a long association with Rex, particularly with sculpting the look of the King of Carnival’s parade.
In the 1950s, the then-Rex captain, Darwin Fenner, sent his young float builder, Blaine Kern, to Viareggio, Italy, to study the Carnival there. In particular, Fenner had his eyes on the large sculpted figures and animated features made the Carnival there a standout. Kern met with and learned from the techniques of the artists and sculptors there, including Bertucelli’s late father, Raul.
The image of the butterfly king, and of the butterfly as a metaphor for Carnival itself, has been a favorite of Rex and Mardi Gras enthusiasts for more than a century. Writer Perry Young captured it more elegantly than any writer before or since, in the first few words of his landmark 1931 book “The Mistick Krewe.”
“Carnival is a butterfly of winter,” Young wrote, “whose last mad flight of Mardi Gras forever ends his glory. Another season is the glory of another butterfly, and the tattered, scattered fragments of rainbow wings are in turn the record of his day.”
Butterflies have appeared in Rex imagery many times over the years, including a Butterfly King on its 1882 invitation. A different, new image graces this year’s Rex proclamation, featuring the work of artist Manuel Ponce.
But as Hales can attest, making that into a 3-D and animated, rolling work of art, is much different.
In addition to several former Kings of Carnival, who will ride on the float, there will be people whose job will be to pull and control the system of levers that will animate the king’s head, eyes, arm and wings.
At a time when “throwback” sports uniforms, soft drinks and other products are popular as marketing tools, this is a true throwback to Carnivals of generations ago. It’s also one more reason to look at float five in this year’s parade with new appreciation for the process that went into getting it there.