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Poster is a Mardi Gras icon

Marina Villeneuve
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

Waldwick, N.J – . — – The face of Mardi Gras has become this: a wide-eyed, feminine visage covered with white pancake makeup, typically wearing sparkling beads and surrounded by swirling magenta, bright green, yellow and purple feathers.

While the image is New Orleans at its essence — jazzy, alluring and full of life — it has its roots in New Jersey.

The woman behind the face is Waldwick artist Andrea Mistretta, who creates a new poster each year. The posters have become so iconic that they top the list of results for the Google search “Mardi Gras poster.”

This year, Mistretta is celebrating the 30th jubilee of her poster series, and she’s hoping soon to start showing the original paintings around the country.

Mistretta, who wore sparkling blue eye shadow during an interview at her home last week, said her inspiration for the first poster was a nightclub performer she saw at a disco in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“I looked at him and he left an indelible imprint on my mind,” she said.

He had delicate, beautiful features she felt compelled to paint.

At the time Mistretta, then a theatrical costumer, aspiring illustrator and daughter of a jazz-loving screen printer, often fantasized about the romance of New Orleans and about a resident of the city she had met at design school.

Mistretta created the first image using a technique she still uses: a combination of graphite penciling, acrylic painting by hand and airbrushing. Calling it “Mercredi des Cendres,” or “Wednesday of Ashes,” she meant the image to be joyful yet tragic, with a clown collar around the subject’s neck and a small teardrop below the left eye.

In the autumn of 1984, Mistretta decided to sell the painting and asked a fellow artist on her way to New Orleans for help. The friend, Karen Charatan, carried a Polaroid photo of the painting with her to the Crescent City and one day wandered into the Royal Street gallery in the French Quarter.

There, she showed the photo to gallery owner Margarita Bergen, who called Mistretta immediately to ask her to make a Mardis Gras poster with her.

“I just thought, she’s so talented, this is history in the making,” Bergen said by phone last week. “I feel responsible for her, like I discovered her.”

The two put together the first poster in 1986, and the year after, Mistretta began working with Russell Cunningham, whose company has distributed the poster ever since.

The poster has become more sprightly — and its face more feminine — throughout the years, focusing on themes such as jazz, mythology and gambling. The latter was again legalized in the city in 1994.

The 2006 poster, “Phoenix Rising,” was a homage to the “miraculous spirits rising of News Orleans” after Hurricane Katrina, Mistretta wrote in a 2010 collection of her work. She donated half the poster’s royalties to New Orleans Habitat for Humanity.

The posters have since been sold during Mardi Gras and exhibited at Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and West Point. Mistretta estimates sales of the poster are in the tens of thousands.

But for Mistretta, who was made an honorary citizen of New Orleans by then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, what’s most touching is how the poster has been embraced as a part of Mardi Gras Carnival culture.

Mistretta walked into Madison Square Garden in 2005 for a fundraising event for Katrina victims, a Cajun band played — and there in the lobby were her posters, enlarged and vivacious.

“I remember getting chills,” Mistretta said. “It’s such a strong image that people connect with. It’s about the love of a community and culture, and of a place where things are just festive.”