As owner of Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions, Taylor brings his Trinidadian-inspired designs to events across Detroit and the country.
he magenta-painted door of Ralph Taylor’s warehouse in Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood is almost always open. Driving by, you might catch a glimpse of his vibrant costume pieces though the doorway.
There are hundreds of headpieces, masks and large costume pieces packed into the space, surrounding a fleet of steel pan drums.
“Growing up in a festive country, I’ve seen a lot of colors and different designs, a lot of storylines that I design after,” Taylor says. “I was born and grew up in Trinidad. We have this celebration every year: the carnival. And I always enjoyed having fun looking at the parades.”
Taylor moved to Detroit in 1973, following his heart: A woman he met while doing a show in the Bahamas. He has lived and worked in Islandview ever since. He stays because he says his neighbors have always shown appreciation for his work, and Taylor has shown it back. Throughout the summer he holds various pop-up parades for those in the neighborhood to enjoy.
“It’s the people,” Taylor says. “I just love doing the costumes, doing parades, doing productions. It’s amazing to see how joyful people are whenever they wear one of my pieces, and the accolades they get by wearing one of my pieces. That keeps me going.”
Those can range in size from tight-fitting costumes to large embellishments that can be 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide. He uses almost any materials imaginable, from copper to feathers to sequins.
Advance planning, preparation and engineering goes into each item. He sketches and builds small-scale prototypes and, since he’s a welder by trade, Taylor constructs each frame by hand.
Even at 74, Taylor still does most of the hard work himself, but he occasionally calls on the community to help him in preparation for parades. He’s held summer workshops for the neighborhood kids to learn his craft, many of which he has watched grow up.
“I let them stretch fabrics or decorate,” Taylor says. “I give the kids the opportunity to feel and touch and learn the process that I go through to do a parade.”
Taylor has gotten requests to bring his show to parties, festivals and parades from Belle Isle all the way to Tokyo. This year, he was named a Kresge Live Arts Fellow. But through all his success, Taylor still just builds from the heart.
“I just make pieces and maybe an opportunity will pop up,” Taylor says. “That’s what I do. It’s very fun-loving work.”