The writer, illustrator and former Gambit theater critic Dalt Wonk once found himself confronted by a Duena, the Pope and the Whore of Babylon all on a Mardi Gras day. All three of them were male. "It knocked me out," he says. "The Whore of Babylon had a big belly and was fabulous."
Costumes, he explains in a brief introduction to his new set of oversized playing cards, The Riddles of Existence, are visual riddles to solve, and Mardi Gras costumes are some of the most complex and original. The cards can be played in a group or alone and feature original watercolors and quatrains by Wonk, who says, coyly, "I am not a visual artists, but I can do something that has a certain amount of charm if I stay within my limits."
One of the threesome he encountered, the pope (who was really the writer Henri Schindler in disguise), took Wonk to Tulane's Howard-Tilton Memorial Library to see a collection of watercolors from Mardi Gras past. "The crews, up until the great depression, they spent a lot of money, and they used to employ artists," says Wonk. "The same artists would stay with the same crew for decades and they would design the floats, which were much smaller than they are nowadays, pulled by mules, and lit by flambeau. It must have been just amazing."
"These things were sensational," he adds. "You could pick them up and put them in your hand. You had the feeling that the people who did this would be famous if they were in Paris or something."
The trip to the library sent Wonk painting, and without thinking he began letting the characters in his paintings introduce themselves, something they always did in quatrains. "I didn't know what I was doing but I was looking at it, and I said this is very odd," says Wonk. "I thought the character in the drawing was introducing himself but in this difficult way. I came up with a whole bunch of these things and I had no idea what they were."
Soon a friend and his six year-old daughter came to visit, and the little girl drove Wonk crazy with a book of riddles she kept reading from. He realized then that his project was a collection of riddles. "What works for kids always goes deep in some way," he says.
The set of cards is available through Luna Press and Wonk will be at the Ogden Museum's After Hours Thursday, Feb. 20 from 6-8 p.m. to explain the game and answer questions. He hopes people will play the cards and argue about the right answers, something made easier by an answer card included in the stack (though the answers themselves aren't in any particular order; it's more like a word bank). He also hopes the stack of cards will inspire costumes come Mardi Gras day. "Costumes," he says, "Or something original."