New Orleans's House Floats Are Keeping Mardi Gras Tradition Alive

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When it became clear that Mardi Gras 2021 would be like no other, Caroline Thomas, a Mardi Gras artist who designs, builds, and paints the floats that roll through New Orleans for the annual celebration, realized that the centuries-old celebration would have to be adapted for the ongoing pandemic.

Mardi Gras requires the effort and coordination of thousands, including local “krewes” that work throughout the year to organize the famous parades by setting a theme, crafting costumes, memorizing dance numbers, and more. Mardi Gras artists—painters, carpenters, and engineers—physically pull it all together by building structures that are both spectacular and safe enough to hold up to 100 people atop them. 

Thomas, an art director for the Krewe of Red Beans, and Devin de Wulf, the founder and captain of the Krewe of Red Beans, had an idea for how they could support the city’s creatives and keep the party going. Instead of more than two dozen parades rolling through town, the people could move past stationary creations—”House Floats”—that would showcase spectacular Mardi Gras design. Thus, the Hire A Mardi Gras Artist program was born. 

The effort relies on crowd-funding from both individuals and large companies to cover a fair wage for the nearly 30 local artists and the necessary materials to transform homes. “Each house costs us roughly $15,000 to transform,” says de Wulf. “We have done about 16 out of 23 planned total.” Local musicians are then hired to play at a ribbon cutting for each.

Homes are chosen in one of two ways: Any local homeowner or business can splash out the $15,000 it costs to have a building transformed. However, those who donate any amount of money to the organization are also put into a lottery—once a full $15,000 is raised, there is a drawing to see which house will be decked out next.

“We wanted to include all types of houses and not just [limit the offering to] wealthy people who could afford something this outrageous,” says Thomas. “Someone who only donates $20 can still end up having [their] home decorated, if they win the lottery.”

And outrageous is an understatement. The finished creations, in a range of themes, tower off the facades of each home. Their first transformed house, titled “The Night Tripper,” debuted in mid-January. In a visual ode to the late Dr. John, one of the city’s most iconic and beloved funk, jazz, and blues musicians, the bright-blue Creole cottage on Toledano Street now wears a seven-foot, grinning skull. Tire-sized pink and purple flowers sprout from the colorful grass stalks, and a curling neon green snake wraps around two tall Voodoo candles in the background.

Another focuses on Louisiana’s native wildlife, featuring elaborate, six-foot herons, swans, and egrets out front; one is draped in gigantic Mardi Gras beads; and yet another is an ode to Poseidon, with shimmering coral reefs, fish, and seahorses made from papier-mâché doused in glitter.

“It’s been so fun to collaborate with these homeowners, many of whom have never commissioned an art piece before,” says Thomas. 

Rachel Hammer, whose Mid-City house now features a beautiful phoenix rising, says she’s “thrilled” that their house is now one of these floats—especially since it’s been a notably difficult year for her and her family. “This pandemic year has been extra hard [on top of] the burden of surviving cancer and a bone marrow transplant. When we found out our home was getting a facelift, and to top it off a musical blessing by the Treme Brass Band, what a joy. It is something we get to share with our whole neighborhood, many of whom have come around to support us in ways we never expected over this last year.” The phoenix motif was a nod to her story.

Giving back to the local community is what fuels those behind the project. “Our krewe has always had a service component,” says de Wulf. It’s not his first effort to get artists through the pandemic either: His krewe launched Feed the Frontline, which raised $1.2 million to feed local hospital workers, before launching a subsequent program called Feed the Second Line, which employs out-of-work musicians to shop and deliver groceries to those in need (to date, it has raised $120,000 and created another $300,000 worth of jobs).“We have culture bearers in this city, and they are the people who make New Orleans what it is,” says de Wulf. “These are musicians and artists and elders who create and pass down our culture. Without them, we are nothing. And so many of them are struggling to even buy food.”

Thomas and de Wulf have raised $220,000 for House Floats thus far, and hope to have all 23 completed by February 7, one week before Fat Tuesday. By that point, many are joking that the whole town might be transformed. The efforts have already extended beyond Hire A Mardi Gras Artist: The Krewe of House Floats is another team now creating house floats, in addition to building a digital map of every decorated home (including those in suburbs like Metairie and Old Algiers).

Both Thomas and de Wulf hope that this interest surrounding house floats signals a brighter future for artists in the city. “People now see the labor that goes into our designs,” Thomas says. “I’m hoping we can start advocating for higher pay, and I think House Floats might stay around in years to come. My phone is blowing up with people wanting their own homes done. That has to be a good sign, right?”

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