House floats raise money for Mardi Gras artists


Despite that the annual Mardi Gras festival season was cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, New Orleanians are still celebrating in their own way. A new krewe, “Krewe of House Floats”, decided to decorate houses for the festival season in keeping with the tradition of the Mardi Gras floats. Photo credit: Maria Paula Marino

Annie Oddo

A large papier-mâché skull has taken over the front of the house at 1834 Toledano Street, surrounded by snakes, cypress trees and irises in bright hues of purple and green. This installation, titled “The Night Tripper,” was the first of many that have popped up thanks to the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist Project, a house float operation that is transforming houses all over New Orleans into professional-style house floats.

The idea of house floats, houses that are vibrantly decorated in the style of parade floats, has been circulating since the time of the city’s decision to cancel parades, with projects like Krewe of House Floats catching on all over the city. Residents have been adorning their houses left and right with Mardi Gras decor, the city’s stubborn enthusiasm for the carnival season finding new outlets.

When Caroline Thomas caught wind of the idea, she saw an opportunity to take it to the next level. Thomas, a float builder for the krewes of Rex and Proteus and former member of the Krewe of Red Beans, not only wanted to spread Mardi Gras sparkle and keep tradition alive, but also to help employ local Carnival artists who have been directly affected by the cancellation of parades.

“I was starting to get my inbox filling up with people wanting stuff,” she said. “lots of little things — things I couldn’t possibly do on my own.”

Thomas said she knew it would take a team of people to make the project happen the way she wanted, so she teamed up with Krewe of Red Beans founder Devin DeWulf, who has been deeply involved with relief efforts since the start of the pandemic.

DeWulf, whose wife is an ER doctor at University Medical Center New Orleans, conceived and helped found Feed the Front Line NOLA in the early days of the pandemic. The project partnered with local restaurants to deliver meals, coffee and cookies to frontline healthcare workers in New Orleans hospitals. The next relief effort was Feed the Second Line an ongoing project that works to support New Orleans’ elder culture-bearers – those making up brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indian tribes. They also hire and train musicians, many of whom have been out of work during the pandemic, as their delivery people.

“New Orleans culture is made by regular people,” DeWulf said. “Most of them are working-class people, and they’ve never really had a good, strong safety net. What we’re trying to do is create jobs, and also build out a safety net.”

To DeWulf and the Krewe of Red Beans, protecting New Orleans culture and those who create it seems like a no-brainer. So when Thomas reached out to him about the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist project, the efforts to get the project off the ground began immediately. The first obstacle was funding the decorations.

“I want to do houses up, pro-style,” Thomas said. “I want them to be a real showcase of Mardi Gras talent.”

Thomas explained that normally, float decorations are funded by the people riding on the float, and it’s far less reasonable to expect homeowners to fund all of the decorations for their houses themselves. To circumvent this, the Krewe of Red Beans has instead turned to crowdfunding and garnering support from local businesses, much as it did with Feed the Front Line and Feed the Second Line.

They started with The Night Tripper as a “sample” house, and the project took off from there. Houses are selected through a lottery system from those who donate, but they can also be commissioned for the full cost of around $15,000. Thomas said that they were able to raise about $300,000 and fund 23 houses (out of a total goal of 40 houses).

By transforming these houses into Mardi Gras art pieces, the project is bringing back work to the local artists who normally devote their time and talent to building and decorating the floats that enchant parade-goers in regular carnival seasons.

Sarah Bastacky, a sculptor with Royal Artists, is one of the artists working on the project, and said she has loved being able to bring her skills into the community in a new way.

“A lot of people don’t know how floats are made at all,” she said. “I feel like people are starting to become more interested in this art form as an everyday part of life in the city.”

Though the situation has required everyone to adapt, Bastacky said the same skills and artistry that go into parade floats are going into the house floats, and the transition wasn’t terribly difficult. One of the houses she worked on was “The Birds of Bulbancha” on Lepage Street, featuring a seven-foot-tall pink egret against a backdrop of other brightly colored birds and flowers.

Thomas, on the other hand, said that working with houses from a design standpoint is still quite different from working on floats. For one thing, the shape of the floats doesn’t change from year to year, so normally float builders know what to expect.

“Once you take off all the decorations and the props, it’s pretty much the same,” she said, “and if you did mismeasure something, you can just chop into a float— it’s not really a big deal.”

Houses require a lot more workaround, for obvious reasons. Thomas said that she worked on one house in Central City that was completely made out of concrete, so they had to build a wooden structure over it to be able to attach decorations.

Along with the unique challenges, though, she said that each place seems to have its own story, and a lot of the homeowners have specific and heartfelt reasons for wanting a certain theme on their house.

One of the house floats was commissioned by Commander’s Palace and is designed as a tribute to the late Pete Fountain and his Half-Fast Walking Club, the well-known musical krewe that kicks off at Commander’s Palace each Mardi Gras morning. Thomas delighted in hearing stories about Pete Fountain from some of his band members while working on the project.

“Every single place has some kind of a little bit of New Orleans history that I’m learning along the way,” Thomas explained.

She said the challenge is then taking those pieces of history and creating artistic representations to honor them, but she also feels that those are the good challenges.

“The city is craving art so much,” Bastacky said. “It’s so amazing that we get to use our skills to bring people that sense of unity through public spectacle.” She and Thomas both feel that art in New Orleans serves a very unique purpose.

“It’s a living, breathing thing that people incorporate into their daily lives,” Thomas said. “It’s how we get through our day, lots of times.”

DeWulf feels that, at the heart of it all, the community is what matters the most, and to look out for the community is to preserve the culture, rich in tradition, that New Orleans is known for.

“The people are what’s special about New Orleans, so we have to protect the people,” he said. “They’re the best treasure that we have, as a community.”