Arts & Culture

The Wildly Creative Way New Orleans is Celebrating Mardi Gras

If parades can’t roll and we can’t leave the house, we’ll make Mardi Gras happen in—and on—our own homes

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

From a bead-bedecked gallery on St. Charles Ave., masked revelers designed by Sean Gautreaux peer down the parade route for the bands that will play again next Mardi Gras.

When the mayor of New Orleans cancelled Mardi Gras 2021 late last November, crews sheathed their half-built floats in plastic to await better times, and Caroline Thomas, a Mardi Gras artist, called her old friend Devin De Wulf with an idea.

Since March, De Wulf, founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, has spearheaded efforts to support New Orleanians effected by the pandemic through Feed the Front Line and Feed the Second Line, hiring out-of-work musicians and restaurant workers to prepare and deliver food to E.R. staff and Mardi Gras Indians, members of Social Aid & Pleasure clubs and other community elders. Now, there was a new opportunity to help those who create and sustain New Orleans’s culture. 

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Lauren Barron and Ariel Troxclair install clouds and cherubs, bread pudding soufflé and champagne, on the facade of Commander’s Palace in the Garden District.

As a painter and designer for Royal Artists, who creates the floats for Rex, Proteus, and Krewe d’Etat, Thomas knew that layoffs were coming. She also knew that New Orleans needed Mardi Gras this year more than ever. Carnival, after all, is designed to warm us in the winters of our lives. It is a feast in anticipation of fasting, a masquerade to remove the barriers that stand between us, a way to laugh at a world that’s too serious to take. “It’s a catharsis,” Thomas says, “before a symbolic death, with the understanding that there will be a rebirth in the spring.” 

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Homeowners dance to the music of Louis Michot after the installation of their house float in the Irish Channel.

New Orleanians were ready to take the festivities into our own hands. If parades wouldn’t roll and we couldn’t leave our houses, we would make Mardi Gras happen in—and on—our own homes. Almost overnight, a Facebook page for the “Krewe of House Floats” gathered 7,000 followers, and Thomas was fielding dozens of requests from people hoping to hire her to decorate their homes. 

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Half a block from a giant mural of the late, great Dr. John, “The Night Tripper,” anchored by a skull by Lisa Browning, illuminates Toledano Street.

But it was not that simple. Laid off from their regular jobs, artists wouldn’t have the workspaces, tools, and teams they needed to get big projects done. Thomas could also foresee that the true Carnival spirit, that Bakhtinian ideal of joyous and profane anti-elitism—a party in the streets—would be perverted if house floats became the sole province of the rich. So, Thomas proposed to de Wulf that they crowdsource funding instead, making each donation—from ten dollars to five thousand dollars—a raffle ticket. Every time a house float was funded, they’d pick a house out of a hat.

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Sarah Bastacky constructs the beak of a great white heron out of papier maché.

Today, Hire a Mardi Gras Artist has raised almost $300,0000 and salvaged nearly fifty jobs that would otherwise have gone down the drain like the tons of beads found clogging catch basins along the parade route. In recent years, riders’ dues have paid for more and more plastic throws from China, rather than supporting the artists who make the floats, and many old timers earn the same hourly rate now that they did in the 1980s. 

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

In Central City, a sign invites members of the community to write the names of their heroes on dove decals and paste them below the large doves by Demi François. Doves celebrating Vice President Kamala Harris, Harriet Tubman, and Mary Lou Specha now adorn the building.

Float-building is an endangered, regional artform, with its roots in nineteenth century stagecraft, the bold forms designed to read, as Thomas says, “from a distance, in the dark, when you’re drunk.” It is also a job that exists only in New Orleans—which means that the artists who love it are a captive workforce, with not many options other than to accept stagnant wages and zero benefits. When they retire in their sixties, no longer able to climb the tall ladders or to tolerate another summer in a warehouse made of corrugated steel, they’ll be lucky to collect Social Security, and Thomas worries that after this downturn, many will leave the profession, taking their expertise along with them.

“Watch some of these old-timers work,” Thomas says, “and every little flick of the brush is like calligraphy.” 

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Daniel Fuselier adds dimension to Pete Fountain’s eyebrows before he is installed in front of Commander’s Palace.

During an ordinary Mardi Gras, it can be hard to take in all the artistry. Gold leaf streamers flicker in the heat of flambeaux, as we jostle in a chaotic crowd, holding up our hands for doubloons flung by a Carnival Queen. But this year, the workers who create the spectacle are emerging from the shadows, as we watch men hang huge papier maché fish from the rafters of a Creole cottage and women tack paintings of putti pouring champagne and serving bread pudding to the façade of Commander’s Palace. 

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Inside the Rex den, Caroline Thomas paints a giant lantern for Sister Mary Lou Specha’s Ladies of the Lantern house float.

Each raffle winner works in tandem with a team of Mardi Gras artists to design their home. Sister Mary Lou Specha, a Catholic nun who ministers to the unhoused at the Hotel Hope in Central City, requested a wall of doves carrying the names of inspirational women including Mother Joseph Hickey, Breonna Taylor, and Ruby Bridges. A cancer survivor asked for phoenixes. In the Irish Channel, a couple who met at a zydeco concert hoped for a Cajun theme. Dancing to the music of Louis Michot in front of her home, now a multidimensional diorama of an Acadian hayride, the homeowner cried happy tears, moved to hear live music again after so long.

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Neighborhood children stop to admire the Birds of Bulbancha, an installation inspired by the native wildlife and indigenous peoples who have used nearby Bayou St. John for thousands of years.

As Ellis Marsalis, one of the first elders New Orleans lost to COVID, once said, “In other places, culture comes down from on high. In New Orleans, it bubbles up from the streets.” To keep our culture, the most precious thing our city has, we must support those who create it.

Devin De Wulf agrees. “In the past,” he says, “we’ve simply consumed. Standing on the sidewalk on Super Sunday watching the Mardi Gras Indians pass, the best we could do was say, Y’all look pretty. We need to change that.” Through Hire a Mardi Gras and Feed the Second Line—whose work is ongoing—De Wulf and Thomas have helped New Orleanians support and inspire one another. Along with the Mardi Gras artists, the initiative employed musicians to organize and move props and play at each house’s unveiling. Mr. Hoppy, who hand letters the title cards for the tractors that pull the floats, made the signs for the houses. A mirror-spangled dress worn by the Captain of the Krewe of Iris, made by costume designer Jenny Campbell, stands on display in the window of the Mignon Faget jewelry store beneath Thomas’s fluttering butterflies—symbols of rebirth.

Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Artists Joey Mercer, Travis Keene, and Chelsea Kamm install a papier maché marsh in Bayou St. John.

“In New Orleans, one person does something amazing,” Thomas says, “and then everyone says, I want to be a part of that. I’m hoping that what we’re doing is just a small component of what inspires other people to reimagine what’s possible.”