Photos by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee
When you try to tell people about Mardi Gras, you probably describe the larger scenes of people lining the streets to catch throws from masked riders on floats being pulled down the route. People who have never seen the magic of Mardi Gras with their own eyes may be confused as to what floats are. Floats are more than just tractors hauling people and beads; they are floating, living works of art. So much work goes into making, painting, and perfecting them, but they can be overlooked, as people are more interested in what's coming off of them rather than what they look like. Float painters love their jobs, but they take their craft as seriously as a heart surgeon. The handiwork of one such artist named Caroline Thomas can be seen most prominently in Proteus, Knights of Chaos, and Krewe d'Etat. Her words will open your eyes to the unique beauty of Mardi Gras floats.
Caroline was born in New Orleans, but she was raised in Baton Rouge. Whenever Carnival season rolled around, her family would come down to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras properly. It became a family affair, as they would stay with her grandparents or at a family friend's St. Charles Avenue home to be as close as possible to the parades.
She said about her history with Mardi Gras, "To be honest, I didn't really care about the beauty of the floats as a kid. It was all about those throws. But I discovered at a young age that you get way more stuff if you're wearing a costume that allows you to stand out, and so started my life-long obsession with costuming. Now my Mardi Gras Day centers around the Saint Ann parade, solely to show off my costume for the year and ogle everyone else's creations."
She also rides in Proteus on the artist's truck. She explained, "We keep all the tools in case the float breaks down en route, but we also decorate the truck and dress up in costume and make it into a good time, because, well, we're artists. I take all the brushes I destroyed over the year (and believe you me, there are a lot!), decorate them, and hand them out to people in the crowd. Where else in the world can artists have that sort of relationship with their audience?"
Caroline honed her artistic skills at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. It was being away from the colorful festivities of Mardi Gras that helped her appreciate them more and more. She saw them as "the backbone of a certain way of life down in the Gulf region."
She began to see Carnival season in a different light and based her studies on it. She said, "My whole senior thesis was based around the concept of masking and the 'carnivalesque,' and I received a traveling grant from my school to go to Trinidad for Carnival. There are some heavy hitters in Trinidad, artists like George Bailey, Brian MacFarlane, and Peter Minshall, who committed meaningful and innovative careers to Carnival. I started to see that it wasn't enough to just make art about Mardi Gras, and that working in Mardi Gras itself could do more to move and unite people than any painting in a gallery."
Upon returning to her hometown after college, she was looking on Craigslist for work and came across an ad that promised she would be a hero of Mardi Gras, despite being "overworked, underpaid, and anonymous." She said that the opportunity sounded like "absolute catnip to a romantic kid straight out of art school." After some years of part-time work painting floats, she was finally able to make it a full-time career in 2011.
The process of painting floats is a year-round venture. Caroline explained her process: "About a week after Mardi Gras, I start meeting with the art director and owner of Royal Artists, the production company I work for. We usually come up with three theme proposals. Krewes have different tastes; some like themes that are kid-friendly, some like pop culture references, and some are solely focused on satire. Proteus is more about fantasy and mystery. And because they've been around since the 1880s, they like themes that tip their hat at that history, maybe by choosing a theme similar to one they did in the far past, or perhaps something that reflects the art and literature of the late 19th century."
The captain chooses from the available options, and Caroline sketches her float designs. Upon approval, she paints them in with watercolors. She continued, "The three main tasks of a float are the paint job, the sculpture or 'prop' on the front of the float, and the decorative paper elements (flowers, stars, etc). Royal Artists works on some of the oldest floats in the city—Proteus floats are over 130 years old, wooden wagon wheels and all. We embrace that as part of our aesthetic as a company, so our props are almost exclusively papier mache, as opposed to Styrofoam. Painters might use a spray gun to block in a float, but we switch over to brushes for shading and detail. We figure people can go to Disney to see slick, polished floats. We want ours to look like they were still created by human hands, while preserving some of the old Carnival craftmaking that is so important to our history as a city."
After Proteus, Caroline moves on to work with Krewe of Chaos, Krewe d'Etat, and some floats for Mobile, Alabama, parades. Caroline loves being able to have more creative control of the look of the floats she works on instead of being part of a larger company that would have a team working on smaller elements of the process.
Caroline said of the time that float painting takes, "We definitely beef up our temp/seasonal staff starting around September, but I start working on next year's designs a week after Mardi Gras. I try to have some designs for the painters within a month. In the meantime, those really hurting for work can do the real dirty work of Mardi Gras—cleaning the floats. Let's just say there's a five-gallon bucket on each float that no amount of money would persuade me to touch. After that, all the theme floats have to be stripped of decorations and whited out, and there are always some slight repairs needed on the floats after getting a beating down Saint Charles."
Hopefully, you'll be able to take the time to look more closely at the all-important vessels of Mardi Gras as they roll down the street this year.