NEW ORLEANS — Barry Kern’s family name is synonymous with Mardi Gras, but even the president and CEO of Kern Studios admits one name deserves to be better known among paradegoers: Manuel Ponce.
You may not know the name, but if you’ve been to a Mardi Gras parade over 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 all the biggest parades, from Alla to Zulu. The list of krewes that will feature his work this year is impressive: Rex, Endymion, Bacchus, Orpheus, Hermes, Babylon, Iris and Caesar. He’s created iconic signature floats for nearly all of them, from the Orpheus Leviathan to the Rex Butterfly King, the Muses red shoe and the Bacchaneer and Kong family floats for Bacchus, which premiered last year. “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.”
Equally impressive as Ponce’s output is his technique. While computers and robots have revolutionized the process of float construction, he still does his work the old-fashioned way, 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 and ideas for floats which depict it. “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 has written several books on Carnival, said Ponce has earned a place in history among Mardi Gras’ most gifted artists. “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 first 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. We’ve worked together so long now that he understands what I’m looking for, which makes the process so enjoyable.” Kern agreed. “He’s just a wonderful guy to work with,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a cross word with Manuel in all the years I’ve known him.”
Like most of the artisans at Kern Studios, Ponce works year-round, drawing floats not only for New Orleans’ Mardi Gras but for events and corporate clients around the world. “It’s a large body of work,” Ponce said proudy. “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 home in Old 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 did earn a degree in graphic design. A classmate, Blaine Kern Jr., helped connect the aspiring graphic artist with his father, 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 will only get a quick glance at his designs as a float rolls 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.” 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.”
In addition to drawing floats, Ponce has also drawn posters and proclamations for several krewes. Each year he also draws the images that are minted onto thousands of doubloons by local krewes for their parades. 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. I enjoy seeing people’s reaction to the floats and to my work. It’s humbling.”