“We think about Mardi Gras as a party, but really it is almost like a fire drill. We are creating these community bonds during the good times so that when something bad happens, we can get into lock step really quickly and address the problem.”
In November 2020, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced there would be no parades during the 2021 Mardi Gras season in order to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in the city and elsewhere. In the wake of that announcement, I spoke with Mardi Gras float painter and designer Caroline Thomas. She is part of a community of painters, designers, sculptors, carpenters, and artisans who work year-round to bring this annual carnival to life by building the elaborate floats for which New Orleans Mardi Gras parades are so well known.
Over the course of our conversation, Caroline spoke about her path to become a Mardi Gras artist and the process of float building. She also discussed COVID-19’s impact on Mardi Gras industry workers and the initiative that she started, Hire a Mardi Gras Artist. This project has helped to create job opportunities for those who have lost work after the cancellation of this year’s Carnival parades.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is not just a one-day celebration; it is a season of festivities that typically lasts four to eight weeks. The terms “Mardi Gras” and “Carnival” are often used interchangeably by locals, as they are in this essay. While similar, these terms refer to different aspects of the holiday. Mardi Gras refers to Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Carnival denotes the entire season of festivities that begins on January 6 and ends on Mardi Gras day.
Becoming a Mardi Gras Artist
Caroline first started working as a Mardi Gras float painter after completing a degree in fine art painting in Cincinnati. A Louisiana native, she was born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge.
“I think when I was a kid I always loved Mardi Gras, and it was always my favorite holiday,” she told me over the phone. “I don’t think I really appreciated it until I left for college and left the state. I think I had a case like a lot of people in Louisiana where you don’t understand what exactly is so unique about it until you feel its absence.”
She left for college just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and surrounding regions.
“That definitely hit hard for me too, where it was like, this culture could actually be extinct. You know, it could die in my lifetime, so you appreciate it more. There’s certain parts about parade culture that I don’t think could really exist in its intensity outside New Orleans.”
In her senior year at art school, Caroline was awarded a travel grant to visit Trinidad during its Carnival season. Before she left, she moved back to New Orleans to work part time in the Mardi Gras industry. When she returned to Louisiana from her trip abroad, she had a realization:
“I think this thing clicked in my head where at this time, I was trying to make fine-art painting about Carnival, and I realized that it was like a hat on top of a hat. Carnival itself is a legitimate art form in its own right. All I was doing was adding a level of prestige by putting it through this lens of fine art.”
Caroline then worked part time as a float painter until she was able to transition to a full-time position at the Carnival production company, Royal Artists Inc., where she has been since 2011.
Behind the Scenes: Mardi Gras Production
During Carnival season, the city hosts parades of all sizes, ranging from elaborate double-decker float processions such as Endymion and Orpheus to the DIY-minded walking parades like the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus and Krewe of Red Beans. In 2020, there were approximately forty-seven parades in New Orleans during Carnival.
Parades are organized by local private organizations, called krewes. While each krewe approaches their parade preparations differently, members manage the preparations for their parade floats’ decoration. Some krewes may do the work of designing and painting the floats themselves, while other krewes, typically those with more extravagantly decorated floats, hire a production studio such as Royal Artists Inc. or Kern Studios.
“At Royal Artists, we still do everything with papier-mâché,” Caroline said. “We do everything using those traditional techniques, and we try to use that as our strength. Everything we’re doing is rooted in that history.”
Royal Artists currently creates floats for Proteus and Rex, two of the oldest parades in the city. They also make floats for other New Orleans parades such as Knights of Chaos, Krewe d’Etat, and Knights of Babylon. In Alabama, Royal Artists is contracted by several parade organizations of the Mobile Carnival.
The design process is different for each krewe. Organizations like Rex and Krewe d’Etat have their own design committees that decide on the theme of their parades. Once a theme is chosen, the team at Royal Artists works to implement the design to each float. Rex has twenty floats in its parade, while Krewe d’Etat has twenty-four.
Unlike Rex and Krewe d’Etat, the theme for Proteus is designed by Royal Artists. Caroline walked me through the process of how she and owner Richard Valadie develop the design for the Proteus parade each year.
“We will usually sit down together and come up with a couple different ideas for themes,” Caroline said. “It’s usually something with mythology, literature, or history. It’s something a little bit more fantastical. Luckily, we do also have this rich history of the parade that has been rolling for so many years, so sometimes we will pull something that references a past theme.”
The proposed theme is reviewed by the krewe captain and a chosen member of the krewe. After their approval, Caroline will then draw sketches for each of the twenty floats. Her years of experience and extensive knowledge of every shape, nook, and access point of these structures helps to inform the design concept for each float. After the design is finalized, she creates hand-drawn sketches and watercolors for the artists to reference during the painting and sculpting process.
“I still do everything by hand,” she explains. “I know some people switched over to doing it on the computer, but all of the Proteus designs are archived, so I think it is important for them to have a physical copy. I personally like it too because I started as a float painter, and I think it is really important that you have to physically paint the design so you know exactly how much labor is going into it.”
The production calendar begins a little before the current Carnival season and lasts until the following Mardi Gras. The team sticks to a tight schedule to make sure the work is finished on time. Royal Artists has four full-time float painters on staff and a team of artists who do part-time and seasonal work to assist in the process. It usually takes three artists to paint and sculpt the components for each float. The painters begin their work first, and then the sculptors start creating the props. Much of the painting and sculpting work is done during the first half of the production year. During the second half, wired paper flowers and secondary two-dimensional elements, called “cut-outs,” are completed and installed.
This process of designing and creating floats for Proteus is only a fraction of the work that the team at Royal Artists completes during the year. Each New Orleans krewe that they work with has between 16 and 24 floats per parade, which does not include their work for the Mobile Carnival. To create the magical and carnivalesque atmosphere of the New Orleans Mardi Gras parades, it takes over a year of hard work by many talented artists working for production studios across the city. It is a labor of love for many of the industry’s workers, and they do not always get compensated as well as they should be.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Mardi Gras Artisans
When parades were canceled for the 2021 Carnival season due to COVID-19, many Mardi Gras artists lost their jobs. At Royal Artists, Caroline and the other full-time staff were able to retain their positions by working on special projects, but seeing the layoffs of her colleagues, Caroline worried about their livelihoods. She was also concerned about the lasting impact that COVID-19 would have on the future of the industry.
“You hope they figure out something, but then there’s a strong likelihood that they will figure out a different way of paying their bills. And then they’re just never going to come back to Mardi Gras. That happened after Katrina. It really takes several years to train somebody. You can get a degree in stagecraft, but there’s really nothing like Mardi Gras. It’s its own unique regional artform. ’ You’re not in Mardi Gras because you’re going to make the big bucks. You’re in it because you really care about what you’re doing.”
As a way to give back to her community, Caroline came up with the idea for Hire a Mardi Gras Artist, a fundraising project in which people can donate money for the chance of having their houses decorated by Mardi Gras industry workers. According to the project’s website, its three goals are to create jobs, “spread carnival joy to NOLA” (aka New Orleans), and “take care of our fellow-New Orleanians. People make Mardi Gras special.”
This idea was inspired by The Krewe of House Floats (KoHF), which started in 2020 as a Facebook group encouraging locals to decorate their houses as a fun and safe way to celebrate Mardi Gras in lieu of parades and in-person festivities. Caroline said that when the KoHF became popular on social media, people started contacting her to decorate their houses. With her fellow Mardi Gras artists, she discussed what they should charge.
“A lot of people, if you’re just an ordinary Joe, and you want your house decorated, it might be hard for you to understand the labor that goes into something like a papier-mâché sculpture. And a lot of people are not going to be able to actually pay the money that it would really take to give these people a living wage.”
With that realization, Caroline wanted to do something to make sure that Mardi Gras workers were not undercharged for their work. She reached out to her friend, Devin De Wulf, who is the founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, a popular walking parade that takes place on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Fat Tuesday. Devin is also the founder of Feed the Second Line, an initiative that started early on during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide groceries for New Orleans’s culture-bearers, musicians, and artists.
“I reached out to Devin on a Sunday and was just like, ‘Hey, can you think of a way we could have some of these houses sponsored so that we could actually do them up proper and so that we can pay people professional rates?’ And the next day, he called me up, and he said, ‘I got five grand. When would you start?’”
Hire a Mardi Gras Artist is now managed by Caroline, Devin, and Dana Buehler, a Mardi Gras “painter, sculptor, and multimedia artist who serves as the project manager. According to the website, additional Mardi Gras professionals and members of the Krewe of Red Beans are also volunteering their time to carry out the work of this fundraising initiative.
The project is primarily supported by public donations. Caroline and her colleagues have estimated that each house float will cost about $15,000 . For every $15,000 milestone reached, donors are entered into a raffle and chosen by the luck of the draw to have their houses decorated. For logistical reasons, only donors who live in Orleans Parish are eligible. Any local donor can have their house turned into a float no matter how big or small their donation, which Caroline says “is great because it means that you can donate a dollar and get your house done.”
Most of the raffle winners have come from donations of fifty dollars or less. About two-thirds of the house floats belong to those winners. The team has also accepted commissions from businesses or individuals with the means to have their houses professionally decorated. Beyond the homeowners, this project is a treat for the city, where locals and visitors can revel in the festivities by viewing the house floats from the street.
Caroline and her team hire eight professionals to work on each funded house float. Once hired, the artists decorate a New Orleanian’s home in the style of a Mardi Gras float, complete with cut-outs, sculptural props, and painted elements.
“We will have three or four people doing the installs,” Caroline described. “And then we’ll have probably around four artists, if not more, that are actually working on the building of the float itself, whether that is going to be someone who does the paper flowers, or we give them part of the design and they do a sculptural element. I think for a lot of these houses, there’s going to be a lot of plywood flats because obviously we can’t paint people’s houses, but we can create an atmosphere with just plywood cutouts and whatnot. Each house is going to be different depending on what the limitations are of the house shape.”
Their ultimate goal is to crowdsource enough funds to decorate 40 houses and pay professional Mardi Gras artists a rate of $25 per hour. From December 4 to January 30, the initiative raised $297,775.82, creating 48 jobs for Mardi Gras workers. In addition, 20 percent of the funds will be donated to the Feed the Second Line initiative. At the time of this writing, the team has completed 12 house floats, and has funded work for 22 houses.
Caroline and Devin see the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist and Feed the Second Line projects as platforms that go beyond the Carnival season. They will provide financial support for the city’s community of practitioners and artists in the future.
“Devin has big dreams. He wants to keep growing Feed the Second Line to a point where it really becomes a social safety net for all these cultural contributors to the city. Tourism is the number one thing that keeps our economy going, and for most people, the number one draw is our culture. And it’s usually the people that are actually building that culture that are the last people to actually see the money.
“It’s not like this is an industry. It’s not union work. There’s no pension, There’s no insurance. I think that it would be really great to use this as a starting off point to ask, ‘How are we going to take care of these people?’ They’ve brought us so much joy, and they make the city unlike any other city in the world. You can travel anywhere in the world and say you’re from New Orleans, and they know where you’re from. And it’s because of the Mardi Gras Indians, and the musicians, and our float builders.”
COVID-19 has been difficult for people all over New Orleans, but throughout this hardship, the community of Mardi Gras practitioners and artists have found comfort and support in each other. Caroline says that this artist-led response is indicative of the deep communal foundation that is at the center of Mardi Gras.
“You have seen it through COVID. Look at Red Beans being able to feed all these people, but also there was a lot of mask making, like sewing medical masks, that was going on within the costume community. People already had built up these bonds, and they had created these networks of people, so when you had this kind of emergency hit, you already had these people’s numbers saved into your phones, or you had that email list to send out and say, ‘Hey, we need help with this.’ And I think you really start to understand why these exist. We think about Mardi Gras as a party, but really it is almost like a fire drill. We are creating these community bonds during the good times so that when something bad happens, we can get into lock step really quickly and address the problem.”
Caroline’s quote encapsulates the heart of what Mardi Gras is and why people are so passionate about this tradition. As she says, the best of Mardi Gras is the community, created through celebration and festivity, that supports people through difficult times.
In this sense, Mardi Gras extends beyond the weeks of Carnival season. While Mardi Gras is catching beads and bumping into neighbors on the parade route, it is also helping your friends when they are out of work. Mardi Gras shows up in every season.
Visit Caroline Thomas’ Instagram page @feastandfolly, to see her curation of images from Mardi Gras history and masking and processional arts.
Maria Zeringue is the Folk and Traditional Arts Director at the Mississippi Arts Commission, where she manages the online publication Mississippi Folklife. She has published articles for the Louisiana Folklife Program, Journal of Folklore Research Reviews, Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, and the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. She has master’s degrees in French and folklore from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Indiana University, respectively.