Skip to Main Content

Community Spotlight: Stephanie Mufson '98

Mufson '98

Marvelwood Community Spotlight

We are always proud of the experiences of our pterodactyls. Our Community Spotlight features the stories of alumni and community members after their time at Marvelwood. To submit your story or nominate a Marvelwood graduate, email

Stephanie Mufson ‘98 originally wasn’t thrilled to start boarding school at Marvelwood. However, what she found was a supportive community that allowed her to express herself and build her interest in the arts. Her time at Marvelwood encouraged her to pursue an artistic career after attending the University of Denver and Maryland Institute College of Art. Mufson currently owns and operates The Parade Guys, based out of San Francisco, California.

What did Marvelwood do for you?

If I’m being totally honest, it took me years to appreciate what Marvelwood did for me. It hit me much later that it’s a very special place. When I moved to Skiff Mountain, I was a little mad at my parents because I originally didn’t want to attend boarding school. I didn’t recognize the impact it was having on me right away, but it was the best decision they made for me. Looking back, I now realize all these memories are special and unique to Marvelwood. I didn't appreciate it enough at the time.

Marvelwood particularly impacted my career in the arts and my identity as a creative person. My art teacher Pam West was my biggest advocate and champion. No one else got me in quite the same way Ms. West did. One time I was in study hall, and I was in my room painting my lamp to look like a person instead of doing my homework. Ms. West and another faculty member were sitting in the dorm hall, and I walked by them with this lamp. I attempted to show them my person-lamp while I was supposed to be doing my homework. Ms. West paused, and then said, “It’s really good, you did a really nice job. Now go do your homework.” She validated me, encouraged me, and then made sure I still got my homework done. I’ve thought about it a million times. She always saw that I was an artist trying to be creative.

That was one of those significant moments that isn't academic, but about the people. Marvelwood is always about the people.

The most significant thing that Marvelwood did for me was give me an independent study in art. They were willing to create an opportunity for me, to help me grow in talents that were going to benefit me. I look back and think about how few schools accommodate their students, to help each student thrive and focus on what they care about.

Another example is the opportunity for non-competitive extracurriculars. I went hiking in the fall, skiing in the winter, and canoeing in the spring. I was from the suburbs, so I didn’t have a deep appreciation for nature before coming to Marvelwood, but I enjoyed exploring rather than playing sports. I am grateful I attended Marvelwood, which encouraged uniqueness, individuality, and recognized quirky interests as valid and worth developing.

Would you share a little about your college experience?

I started at the University of Denver, then transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. My parents originally encouraged me to pick a liberal arts school to broaden my class options. I tried some classes in politics and social sciences, and they were interesting, but the art program at University of Denver wasn't as intense as I wanted. I took a semester off to do nothing; naturally, that was boring, too. So then my parents let me attend art school at MICA. It was another environment where they embraced uniqueness, creativity, and the quirky.

How did you end up the owner of a parade float company?

I always knew I wanted to live in California since I visited when I was a kid. I liked the weather and the laid-back culture. I moved out here a year after I graduated from MICA. I started in a small studio apartment with my then-boyfriend who is now my husband, and I freelanced for a while with the goal of becoming a famous painter by thirty. I spent my twenties working odd jobs, in and out of retail here and there, but really giving my all to paint as much as I could. I painted eight hours a day every day for almost ten years, on top of all the part-time work.

In my mid-twenties, I decided I was done with retail jobs. I was able to start nine hours a week as an artist’s studio assistant, and did face painting at circus performances. In addition, I was doing odd commission work I found online. I built a solid foundation of skill sets doing that, including pushing myself to say yes to jobs I didn’t think I was qualified for. I was doing a lot with event industries to find work, so I also became interested in that market. I started working at the parade float company when I was twenty-seven. At that stage, it was just one of my many side gigs.

I turned thirty, and was about to go back to school for something completely different and give up on the arts when I learned that a circus that I’d always wanted to work for was hiring a full-time face painter. I got the job and then started producing my own art events on the side. It sounds chaotic and crazy, but I was honing my skills in a professional world.

The circus eventually closed down, but I’d always continued small projects at the parade company. About the same time as the circus closed, the parade float company owner decided he was going to retire and offered me the company. I was happy to take it! He gave me about three years of boot camp training on running a parade float company, including learning how construction and all the finance pieces worked, and many things that were out of my wheelhouse at the time.

I’ve technically been running it for ten years. In the seven years I’ve owned Parade Guys, we started with three employees and now we have about twenty. We’re working year-round, we have added more projects than just floats now, and we have locations in southern California where we make a few floats for LA, Palm Springs, and San Diego. We’re working on a mini-golf course, some parades coming up, and an amusement park. We do all kinds of one-off jobs for corporate installs and personal clients.

I’m currently working through a Masters program in industrial design, which is great because that has really helped me refine my abilities in float-making and communicate float ideas to my clients. I love to collaborate with a lot of interesting people. About 75% of our work is with live events. It’s a very lively environment filled with people who have a lust for life and create out-of-the-box experiences with people. There are a lot of creative design processes. Some are mine, some are clients’, some are other people’s. Just being able to witness people getting joy from what we put our time and energy into creating is really gratifying.

Even though my original dream was to become a famous artist, I think this is actually better. That would have been a very solitary existence. This is better for me because my team and I all get to share our own talents and genius and assemble them. One person couldn’t make the things that we make. One week we make an eight-foot-tall lipstick; the next, we make a giant dog. Next week, we’re carving giant rabbits. It’s random and it’s funny. It’s always a challenge. We are always learning new things, collaborating, and working things out.

What goes into making a float?

The process starts with someone reaching out to say they need a float. Sometimes I work with companies who have in-house design teams, and they bring me the plans and I act as a consultant for their design, marking any safety risks involved with their design. Other groups don’t have an in-house design team, so then they hire us additionally to create the design.

I love creating ideas with a client! They’ll suggest something such as hot pink, cotton candy, and disco balls. I usually request that they show me an idea or mood board that helps me best envision their float.

After the client and I have agreed on the design and budget, it’s usually a four- to six-week process to build a float. I have a team of people who are all artists and craftspeople. I delegate a lot, but I try to get my hands dirty as much as I can. The hands-on work is really what I love to do. As parade day gets closer, we do constant safety checks, and we are there on site during parade day. It’s the best feeling to see my giant “babies” out there on the street!

We usually celebrate with a party, and then we return and there’s a big mess to clean up at the warehouse!

Would you give any advice to a current Marvelwood student who loves art?

I especially empathize with young people in the arts today because of AI, and societal situations that are threatening the arts. It was hard enough in the ‘90s to advocate for yourself and your creative interests. Now, companies are constantly believing that artists can be replaced by technology. Young people must be reassured that the value of the individual and a unique perspective is crucial to making the world interesting, fun, and worth living in. You need to find the things that excite you, and find the people that encourage you. Know that if you put your energy into your life every single day, it will make sense eventually – even if it takes a while, and doesn’t happen in the way you expected.

Congratulations, Stephanie, on your development of Parade Guys! We can't wait to see your next creations.

This article has been edited and paraphrased from a live interview for clarity.