In ironic contrast to the cacophony of color, materials, newspaper clippings, beaded fabric, and even a gutted vintage Jaguar in his studio, Ralph Taylor is understated. At 71, Taylor, who speaks in a gentle Caribbean accent, seems to say only what needs to be said, deferring instead to the assorted paraphernalia around his studio; allowing them tell his story. For his audience, this is not an altogether disappointing prospect; the yarn inherent in these objects is rich and evident.
"What I do is design mobile sculptures for parades which come alive when someone wears my designs," Taylor says. "In my process I use a lot of wire sculpture, flexible materials such as fiber glass rods, aluminum and fabrics. My scales are anything from four feet high to fifteen feet."
Taylor retrieves a laminated newspaper clipping from a mysterious nook in his wonderfully cluttered studio—the supporting archival evidence of his story. The paper, yellowed a little under the clear laminate, is a photocopy of a bygone time, or a time that really never was. The fantasy shown in the newspaper clipping is a picture of a woman in an elaborate costume, frozen in a statuesque pose that makes her attire impossibly more grandiose. The lady is wearing a creation of Taylor's.
He then offers some context to this picture. "I could recall the very first show that I was involved in. it was a costume designing competition put together every year by the Ellitorian Business Women—the Beaux Arts Ball in 1973. As soon as I got here, I got involved with them. I worked with them all the way up to the '90s."
Before it was trendy to migrate to destitute areas and inhabit once formidable, now crumbling loft spaces, Taylor did it. Taylor moved from Trinidad to the United States, to Detroit, in 1973. He settled in the Lafayette and Canton area, a neighborhood abutting Island View, which itself abuts the more popular Indian Village. It is in this forgotten place, between prospects, that Taylor's work gestates, finding expression everywhere else.
"I've been around for a while and people look forward to seeing my work annually through the Caribbean parade. You have thousands of people lining across the street to see my work. My work has shown in Toronto, New York, Trinidad, Chicago, Detroit and even Japan."
The limiting quality of words is evident in Taylor's work. His work is not necessarily impossible to codify with language; it simply is that most words do not have enough charity to accommodate.
First there is the costume's inspiration, and then comes the time and effort necessary to execute; the meticulousness and ever-present awareness to transport an immaterial dream to a living art piece. For Taylor, it usually begins with a specific idea, which becomes more oblique with each new layer of work done. An example is a more recent piece he is working on. Inspired by the image of an angel in a garden, it more resembles an electric forest of found art arranged with a cohesion that invites touches and long musing stares. The work has petals made of stretched green fabric and wrought iron twines. There is a wheeled attachment that allows the wearer to move comfortably, as all of Taylor's costumes are designed to wear in street parades. His costumes are also usually engineered in pieces; the costumes are dislocatable to allow for them to be easily transported.
"This costume is actually a flower garden an angel is going to be stepping out of. I was commissioned to do a mini parade for the Eastern Market. I was trying to relate something with the Eastern Market
, which [is shown in the] fruit and flowers. There was a lot welding, forming of wires and fabric stretching."
Taylor has lived in Detroit for almost four decades in the same neighborhood. He has watched it come, go, and come back again. He has seen as much as most people will and he continues, diligently building beautiful art in his community and for them.
"As a kid coming from Trinidad one of our events in Trinidad was [Carnival and all of the parades]. I always loved the colors, the shapes, the wire sculpturing of the designs, and the form of the costuming. I continued loving it and do it. I continued appreciating my culture so wherever I went to leave I would do a production. So I decided to come up with a name everyone could relate to, and that’s Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions
Taylor employs neighborhood youth to assist in the building of his costumes, teaching them to feather and glue decorations, stretch fabrics and airbrush. Since each costume is unique and usually an involved affair, Taylor's relationship with the neighborhood children is mutually beneficial. He is able to pass on his heritage and techniques while also getting help on the nearly one hundred costumes he builds each year.
He works with the local church and the Mt. Elliott makerspace
putting on an annual Parade of Surprise in the neighborhood, a mini street carnival of costumed paraders that winds down the neighborhood streets to the audible delight of all.
Politely terse, Taylor is his most talkative when he is discussing his work .
"I enjoy all my work. I enjoy all the processes of making a piece. I just love to engineer my costumes. I get a lot of fun and joy in the work, when I’m assembling the costume in front of an audience. It always amazes me that people are so taken by how I put my pieces together the morning before a parade." Then he is quiet again.
You see Taylor is a costume maker that builds fantastical, surreal, colorful, animated, whimsical, inspired, technical pieces. Meticulously strung together with stretched fabric, welded steel, shells, glass, Taylor's costumes are loudly evocative…they speak for themselves, so he really doesn't have to.
All photos by Doug Coombe.