For some people Mardi Gras exists as a single day, but Caroline Thomas is one of the full-time Mardi Gras artists who works on the event all year round. Thomas is a member of a carnival production company, Royal Artists Inc., that creates floats and props for Mardi Gras—as well as other big parades—held in New Orleans every year. Elisa Schoenberger reached out on behalf of team members eager to learn more.
Schoenberger: Could you describe the process of designing a float for a Mardi Gras parade?
Thomas: All of the parades are funded by a private social club called a krewe and the captain [is the leader]. For the Proteus krewe, which is the one I’ve been doing the longest, I’ll sit down with Richard Valadie (who is the owner of Royal Artists), and we’ll come up with two or three design ideas to present to the captain.
Every krewe has their own kind of voice to it. Proteus, they’re a little bit more mysterious. They’re part of the old line krewes that came out of the 1800s.There’s a lot of Victorian mysticism associated with krewes. We tend to choose themes that are a little bit more mystical, and esoteric, which I love because I get paid to sit around and read Icelandic medieval epic poetry. They don’t care how weird it is [but it has] to be somewhat accessible in a sense that you want to be visually pleasurable.
So, a little kid watching [a Proteus float] can enjoy it because there’s a big dragon on the float, and maybe they don’t get that as a reference to the Wagner Ring cycle. I’m always looking for new ideas. I listen to a lot of books or podcasts. We did the Wagner Ring cycle because I listened to a really cool Radiolab [podcast] about it.
We present our design ideas to the captain, and then let them choose from that, and then we’ll start fleshing it out. I think that’s one of the situations where I really benefit from being a painter as well as a designer, because I know these floats really well. They all have their own different characters to them. They’re reaching their 150 birthdays.
As a painter, I know which parts are easy to access and which parts are good focal points. There’s one that’s kind of shaped like a temple. So, some years, it’s an Egyptian temple, sometimes it’s Mayan ruins. We try to find a theme that you can stretch out the 16 floats.
We try to shape it around that and go from sketches to color plates. I think it’s really important to hand paint all my designs. A lot of people have moved over to digital and my criticism is that something that you can draw on a tablet really quickly is not necessarily an easy thing for a painter to paint. My general rule is I try to do a color design in a day knowing that is going to take a float painter four to five days to physically paint, because they get paid per float. It’s not an hourly job. So, if you give someone something impossible to paint, they’re either going to go broke, or they’re going to give you a very Cliff Notes version of that design.
Then we color and get all those designs approved, and then we go to paint. [There’s also sculpture and secondary 3D elements like flowers and grapes that are made for the float.]
Schoenberger: When the 2021 Mardi Gras parades were canceled due to the coronavirus, many Mardi Gras artists lost their jobs. While Thomas kept her full-time job, she came up with the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist project to help artists who had lost their jobs. The idea of House Floats was in the mix thanks to a 2020 Facebook Group, known by many as “Yardi Gras.” The effort included a raffle so more people could have a chance to decorate their houses.
When asked about what she designed, Thomas said: “We did 23 floats total and I did ten of them (with my design team).” Then she gave me a favorite example.
“Sister Mary Lou Specha crowdsourced a house from her community. She is a nun and runs a shelter for women with children called Hotel Hope. She wanted to have her house done like a float because she really wanted to support the artists, but also do something for her community as well as raise awareness about her shelter.
The theme was “Women of Light.” The main image was a lantern because her religious sect is founded by a woman, Nano Nagle, who used to travel at night with a lantern to go help out. Some of it was honoring the origin of her religious sect but a whole side of the float was all the names of different women, both within the Catholic community but also including Breanna Taylor and RGB. Then we’ve got really nice little decals so that people could then write the names of their own women of light to add to the side of the float.”
Schoenberger: What else do you want me to know?
Thomas: Mardi Gras really is so much more than a party for the people who actually live here. What you see on Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras day is like six square blocks, and the entire city is participating in Carnival, and it is so diverse and complex. Even what I do in Carnival is just a small sliver of what is actually out there. And it’s rich and complex, and it’s deeply spiritual for a lot of people. Not that it isn’t also bawdy, offensive, and over the top, because that’s part of it too. Because it’s about men at play. I think – especially this year —we saw how Mardi Gras be used like a form of catharsis.
This is a tiny sliver of what Caroline does for Mardi Gras. Check out her website (http://www.carolinemthomas.com/) which includes her impressive headdresses and more. Also check out this Folklife article that talks more about “Hire a Mardi Gras Artist” as well as fun facts about the beginning of Thomas’ career.
© Elisa Shoenberger (2/25/21)—Special for FF2 Media LLC
Top: Caroline Thomas and Sarah Bastacky paint the prop for House Float #4 as part of the Red Beans Krewe’s Hire a Mardi Gras Artist project on January 2, 2021 in New Orleans at the Rex Den.
Bottom: Caroline Thomas paints fish at the Rex Den that were made during a Mardi Gras arts and technique class by Domaton Graves. The fish will go on House #13 of the Red Bean Krewe’s Hire a Mardi Gras Artist project.
Photo Credits (with permission): Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee. All Rights Reserved.