Robot brings Mardi Gras magic to life

Robot makes Mardi Gras art

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Mardi Gras is an art form in itself, from the lights, the flambeaus, even the throws, it's all unique. But the biggest pieces are truly captivating. Often carved from styrofoam with kitchen knives and horse brushes, then painted by hand, the art is at its best at Kern Studios. While we only expect Carnival a couple of weeks a year, the artists there work year-round to keep you on the edge of your ladder.

"Mardi Gras celebration, it's a cultural thing. You get a lot of the same people going to see it every year, and they want to see new stuff. The customers want new stuff, members of the krewes want new stuff and everyone wants to do something that's a little bit better and so, fortunately we got great customers that always want to strive to change and create new things, and this new tool will help us do that, as well," said Barry Kern, owner of Kern Studios.

Kern's newest edition to the staff is a seven-axis CNC robotic arm named Pixie after a former sculptor who spent her life bringing the magic of Mardi Gras to life. Now Pixie is literally the cutting edge of the industry.

"It allows us to produce a lot more efficiently in terms of we can get stuff through and more things done in a shorter period of time," Kern said.

Alex Sherrod, who once carved sculptures by hand, is now the man behind Pixie, training it to carve huge blocks of Styrofoam on its own.

"I was really surprised how similar it was to the process I was already doing when I would take a big block of foam and I would rough out to the basic volume, and then from there I would use basic tools to add all the detail and finishing touches. Really it's the same thing that the robot does," Sherrod said.

The robot can work 24 hours a day using various drill bits to carve anything from a two-inch model to a full-size sculpture. That's helped Kern Studios expand their menu of options for customers.

"Mardi Gras is growing, the outside commercial work is growing, work for museums, casinos, but there's architects talking to us," Kern said.

It's why Pixie is such a crucial addition to the staff. But the robot won't squeeze out any artists. In fact, since it was installed, Kern studios has added people, like Brennan Steele, a digital fabrication designer in charge of modeling what Pixie will carve.

"Most of the time it's just a concept. Some of the time it's just a sketch that comes with references, so I pulled from that and then I sketch something on paper, give myself a general idea of the mass proportions of things," Steel said.

"Hand carving, handcrafting is always going to be a part of what we do, and that was kind of a big fear that some people may have had - the robot is going to take everyone's job. But in actuality, it's brought in more jobs in our company," Sherrod said.

For Kern Studios, it's just another tool in their arsenal that's already wowing visitors touring through Mardi Gras World and is sure to shock and awe the crowds on the neutral ground and sidewalk side this year.

"You're going to see Pixie-created pieces on floats. I'm not sure if people are going to be able to tell the difference," Kern said.

That's the real magic - all at the finger or drill tips of the artists at Kern Studios.

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