Macy’s Parade Studio Painter Beth Lucas’s Artwork Floats Above it All
While most artists struggle to have even a thousand people see their work in their lifetime, one Jersey City artist’s work has been literally paraded before millions over the past two decades.
Jersey City Heights resident Beth Lucas, 52, is the head scenic artist for the Macy’s Parade Studio, which relocated to Moonachie, N.J., from Hoboken last year. Lucas works year-round with a team of about 22 other artists to create the fantastic floats that millions see in person or on television every year. Last year’s parade alone averaged 22.4 million viewers, a 10-year high, according to NBC.
Lucas moved to Jersey City in 1984 after earning a Master’s in Fine Art from Rutgers University. A friend who worked at the Macy’s Parade Studio, then located in the old Tootsie Roll factory in neighboring Hoboken, told her about the gig.
“Somebody I graduated with – or who was a year older than me? – someone who went to Rutgers as well, she got a job at the Macy’s Parade Studio and when she was there for six months when she said, ‘This place is for you, you’ve got to get a job here,'” says Lucas. “I didn’t even know it existed! I just went in and talked to people there and two months later I got hired and I never left.”
At her new job, Lucas met her husband, Charles Walsh. The couple has two daughters – Isobelle, 20, a McNair Academic alumna, and Olivia, 16, a senior at Dickinson High School – and has renovated two homes in the Heights, which made Lucas’s daily commute simply “rolling down the viaduct” for 25 years.
At the studio, Lucas adds finishing touches to all the floats and is one of the last production stops for each project in what she says is a long process.
“It’s a pretty big production. You start out with getting clients and from there we have a bunch of artists that do a lot of design work who make sketches of what look we’re going for. Once that gets approved, they do color renderings – and they won’t do just one, but do three or four. Once that’s approved, they build models and it goes to the carpenters, welders and sculptors who build it,” says Lucas, who adds that floats are often built of Styrofoam, metal, wood and other structural materials. “After that’s all finished, it comes to me and I put the icing on the cake,” she says.
Using paint and a bit of trompe l’oeil, Lucas creates what appear to be wood, marble or other texturized surfaces. She works alone throughout the year on floats for various occasions like the Macy’s Flower Show and Fourth of July Celebration until September, when she says the studio will often hire a freelancer to help her get everything finished before the big Thanksgiving Day parade.
She says one of her most challenging and exciting projects was a 20-foot guitar made of wood and metal for Gibson. “I had to do the wood graining and make it look realistic, which is pretty tricky. It was really challenging…[but] once I’m finished and I get it exactly the way it’s supposed to look, it’s just a good feeling,” she says.
After the floats are completed, they are folded into boxes to fit through the Lincoln Tunnel and are unpacked on Wednesday evening before the parade.
The crew works through the night until the parade kicks off and then wait where the parade route ends on 37th Street to repack the floats as they arrive. While they miss Thanksgiving with their families, the studio hosts a special dinner for the employees’ families on the Friday after the event.
Lucas says working for Macy’s has been a great experience, both in Hoboken and at the much larger, brand-new facility in Moonachie.
“There’s nowhere else where you can paint like I paint on a daily basis and… have the freedom to do what I do. The studio has just been really good to me and there’s no reason why I’d want to leave,” says Lucas, adding, “Usually as a painter or as an artist, you’re a freelancer and it’s pretty hard to find work as an artist on a full-time basis.”
After work, Lucas often heads home and creates her own fine art – everything from paintings to decorative floor coverings – in her attic studio.
“I do a lot of architectural detail stuff and I like to use things from everyday life,” says Lucas. “I thrive on fashion, popular culture and commercialism. I like to take images everybody is used to seeing and explore the re-contextualization of those ideas.”
The results are often slightly wacky, often playful renderings of things like the Greek-key decorated coffee cups found in bodegas across the country. One of Lucas’s coffee cup paintings was featured in an exhibit at the Distillery Gallery in the Heights last year, where it sold.
“I never expected that,” says Lucas with a laugh. “As an artist you can’t expect to sell your work because it’s extravagant for people to buy artwork… I felt pretty good about that.”
Lucas says she wasn’t able to easily show her work when her kids were younger, but is now focused on showing more of her paintings. Four pieces from “Ta-Da! Artworks by Beth Lucas,” her solo exhibit on now at the Hoboken Historical Museum’s Upper Gallery, have already sold. Lucas also plans to launch a website and create hand-painted T-shirts, what she calls a way to “get (her) art out there that everybody can afford.”
Whether it’s for work or pleasure, Lucas just loves to paint.
“I do it 40 hours a week and then go home to do it after the dishes are put into the dishwasher,” she says. “It’s very comforting to me and it’s just part of my life.”
“Ta-Da!” is on display at the Hoboken Historical Museum, 1301 Hudson St., Hoboken, through July 1. For more information, visit HobokenMuseum.org or email bethpainting[at]gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of Beth Lucas