Artists create the faces of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

30th annual Mask Market features 12 vendors

Masks are indelible symbols of New Orleans culture, embodying the mystical merriment of a great American city.

And in a laid-back corner of the French Quarter, an annual Mask Market is assembled, featuring a host of artistic styles.

This year’s event — Friday through Monday — is a mini-festival of mask artisans from throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The 30th Mask Market will showcase 12 vendors, including one from British Columbia.

Some of the featured vendors will include long-time mask-makers and market participants Wendy Drolma, of New York; Semmerling and Schaefer, of Illinois, and Richard Thompson, Hide Leather, of New York. There are a host of styles from feather to leather to animal constructions and the traditional Mardi Gras outlook. Mask prices range from $25 to $250.

Carl “Trapper” Trapani, also known as the Masque Man, has been a lively, outlandish vendor since 1985. He started making Mardi Gras masks, costumes and headpieces for his mother, relatives and friends, and decided to sell his wares in the Quarter. Trapani had a corporate job, but after “getting canned,” turned to art as a career and became a “character.”

“I’ve always done feathers and sequins. Regal colors. I try to find a niche that’s more decorative, not something you’re going to put on a wall, but something you’ll wear to have fun. I like to put together a costume,” he said.

Trapani enjoys bringing out an adventurous side of his customers, coaxing them to use the mask as an avenue to be more open and bold.

“I try to encourage them, get them to put (the mask) in their hands. Let the mask become their hidden persona and build the costume around it. They want to dress up, but don’t know where to start,” he said. “When you’re behind the mask, you become that person of mystery. People often find a confidence they never had.”

The Mask Market was founded in 1982 by Mike Stark, the late artist and Quarter shop owner who had a long-standing relationship with the French Market.

Stark created the New Orleans Mask Makers’ Guild and invited artisans from throughout the U.S. to showcase their creations at the annual event.

The market grew in stature under Stark’s guidance and continued to thrive after his death in 1998.

“Mike brought me in (to the Mask Market),” Trapani said. “He was a true craftsman, a hippie godfather of New Orleans. Very artsy.”

The Mask Market and new Mardi Gras Market will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day between Ursuline and Barracks streets on French Market Place near the Farmers Market.

This year’s event will have a special Lundi Gras component — “Fat Monday at the French Market” — with a more “family-oriented” feel, including activities for children, second lines and live music.

Artists on the Farmers’ Market Stage will include the Joe Krown Trio, Russell Batiste, the New Orleans Moonshiners, Kid Merv and All That Jazz, the Tornado Brass Band and others.

This market will have food offerings not available at the French Market, including crepes.

“It’s a nice break from Mardi Gras,” said Amy Kirk Duvosin, marketing director for the French Market Corp. “You may not be in the market for a mask, but it’s a different environment from (Carnival). It’s not as crowded, it’s open air, the river is right here, you get caught up in the atmosphere.”

The French Market Corp. is working to drive more visitors and traffic to the end of Decatur by featuring an outdoor stage with small events — bands, street performers, new Farmers’ Market vendors, and the Creole Tomato Festival — each weekend through June. RTA’s Red Line/Riverfront streetcar runs directly to the Market, where more affordable art, clothing and other cultural items are also available.

For a detailed schedule of events, visit http://www.frenchmarket.org.

Karen Celestan is a writer, cultural administrator and educator living in New Orleans. She can reached at Karen@mosaicliterary.com.