And you thought Vincent van Gogh had it tough! At least the post-Impressionist genius gave up only an ear in pursuit of his kaleidoscopic world of color.
Rick Pustanio? That’s another story altogether. Pustanio has the same aspirations as van Gogh. But while the Mid-City native has kept both his ears, he’s had to endure creating his “rolling artwork” in a dark-as-midnight warehouse without electricity – a place only Boris Karloff could love; tornadoes that tore the front and back off that warehouse; ankle-deep water every time it rains (not to mention eight feet of water after Katrina); ducking softball-sized hail; a major fire across the street; raccoons, a possum or two and possibly a few bats up in the rafters; and all in a neighborhood that could easily pass as a training ground for Navy Seals.
Pustanio is the heart and soul behind the always glitzy Sunday-before-Mardi Gras Mid-City Parade – that rolling testimony that gives garishness a good name.
Pustanio does it all from concept and design, to cutting and pasting miles and miles of colorful aluminum foil that he personally staples onto the floats of Mid-City. He “lives and breathes” his work: 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I’m an artist,” Pustanio says. “These floats are my canvases. They’re my babies. I gotta admit, it’s a real thrill working in this place. I’ve had more adventures than Indiana Jones. But this parade always comes first.”
The Mid-City Parade is the highlight of the Mardi Gras season, he’s quick to tell you. “No other parade has what we have. No other parade is made entirely of aluminum foil.”
He uses 35 rolls each of 975 linear feet of aluminum foil and Mylar (a thin, foil-like substance) much of which Pustanio purchases from a Big Lots discount store.
Pustanio staples as he talks. While he works he’s as jittery with excitement as a kid in a candy store. He staples and pats down. He steps away to get a better look at one piece of his handiwork and he muses over the 18-float Krewe of Mid-City’s new route the traditional St. Charles Avenue path.
“I love the new Uptown route,” Pustanio says. “The people are absolutely wonderful: cheering, waving. I’m in my truck in the front of the parade and I’m so moved by it all that tears actually roll down my face. When we get to the kickoff point Uptown, I’m like a new mother. I’m still stapling and pasting, doing this doing that. I want it to be just perfect. It’s all still a big thrill … after all these years.”
“All these years” goes back to the days when Pustanio couldn’t wait for the bell to ring at Holy Rosary School so he could join his buddies in their elementary school bowling league at Mid-City Lanes on South Carrollton Avenue. But it was after the last pin dropped and everybody headed home when the bug bit.
“We couldn’t walk down Carrollton Avenue to get home because the bigger kids from Jesuit [High School] used to chase us,” Pustanio says. “So we cut down Murat [Street)] and that took us right past the Mid-City den.”
And in that Mid-City den was Betty Rae Kern, sister of float-building king, Blaine Kern, working feverishly on the Mid-City floats.
“Betty invited us in,” Pustanio recalls of those formative days long ago. “It was kinda like in Tom Sawyer, you know, painting the white fence. Betty would say, ‘You can do this,’ and ‘You can do that.’ And first thing you know we were helping her out, working on the floats. Then she’d tell us that when we went to the parade the one who brought her back the largest piece of foil from the parade would get a dollar from her. She would say, ‘That keeps me in business.’ As the floats went by, we’d run up and snatch a piece of foil off the side. It was a kick!”
All the while, the young Pustanio was honing his skills on his kitchen table, feverishly completing his school assignment creating ‘shoe box floats.’
“The floats we made as school projects would actually be judged by the royalty of Mid-City,” Pustanio says. “The winning shoe box float would ride on the king’s float in Mid-City. I won it three years in a row. And in the back of my mind, all I could think about was the real Mid-City Parade. I wanted more than anything to design and build this parade.”
As he grew older, when he wasn’t working alongside Ms. Kern, Pustanio spread his talents around, including working as technical director for Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, designing call letters for local radio stations, displays for the 1984 Worlds Fair, building scenic designs for movies shot in New Orleans, volunteering for countless nonprofit organizations, such as the “Children’s Educational Theater,” an affiliation that began in 1992 and is still running today.
The list of credits is long and also includes designs for the 1988 Republican National Convention held in New Orleans.
“I remember, I was putting down carpet and trying to lay cables and get them covered at that convention,” Pustanio says. “I was on all fours and people kept walking over right where I was trying to work. Finally, this guy sees what’s going on and he comes over to lend a hand. He holds out his arms and stops traffic until I’m done. Finally, he shoots out his hand and shakes mine and says, ‘Hi, I’m Dan Rather and I’m from CBS News.’ I shake his hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Rick Pustanio and I’m down here on the floor.’”
In 1992, Pustanio’s wife and “inspiration,” Sharon, died of sleep apnea, and the bouncy artist with the seemingly endless supply of 20-hour-a-day energy was broken.
“She was everything to me,” he says. “She was always right beside me, helping. She was an artist of tremendous talent. I knew one of the reasons I had to pull myself together and go on was because of her. I still feel her presence here. She’s right here, right now.”
In the late 1990s, Pustanio’s life took another dramatic turn when Ms. Kern died and he was named the exclusive artistic designer for the Krewe of Mid-City. Since that time, the cave-like den at a dead-end Mid-City street almost under a raised portion of the Pontchartrain Expressway, at the end of nowhere and the beginning of some place has been Rick Pustanio’s place of solitude and creation.
“I have volunteers help out a great deal,” Pustanio says. “And I have Jules Richard working with me. I call Jules my ‘babysitter’ ‘cause he tells me when to go home, when to eat. It’s great to have him here. I mean look where we are in the city, the middle of nowhere. If I’m up on a float, 20 feet in the air and fall what happens … somebody has to call 9-1-1. And then there are the ‘other things …’”
Pustanio’s voice trails off and he looks around at the sea of color foil on wheels.
“We haven’t had electricity in here since Katrina,” he says. “The meter was taken down. So many nights and some days I work in here by flashlight. One day I’m in here and I hear this pounding and pounding. I open the door and a softball-sized piece of hail flies past my head. It’s pounding the place to ribbons. Then all of a sudden it stopped. The ceiling looked like the Milky Way with all the holes in it. Miraculously, the rain didn’t come in. But when it does come in through the gaping holes where a tornado tore the front and the back off the building (“but never touched the floats”) there’s two feet of water in here. For a stretch whenever I’d go to get something to eat, I’d come back and the big door in front would be wide open. That happened over and over. I thought it might be a ghost of Mardi Gras past or something. Then one day I come in and find the culprit. Every time I went out, this raccoon climbed up the big lift chain. He’d trip the electric motor on that door and the door would go up. No ghosts … just a raccoon.”
Then there was the dead quiet night when the millions of fingers of foil on all the floats shimmered and bounced seemingly without cause.
“The next day I read about the tsunami on the other side of the world and I realized, the foil was like a seismograph picking up the vibrations in the earth thousands of miles away. It was weird.”
Pustanio is about to launch into another adventurous tale of life in the darkened den when he picks up a stare from Jules Richard that reminds him that Mardi Gras is early in 2008 which means that the day for the Krewe of Mid-City to shine and jiggle and shimmy in the sun in celebration of its 75th Anniversary is also early … and that means back to work.
There are miles to go and promises to keep and aluminum foil to staple. Raccoons and tornadoes and flooding be damned!