Mardi Gras 2021: New Orleans’s House Floats Are Keeping the Celebration Alive

Tray Ling

Our Here, Now column looks at trends taking hold in cities around the world. Given how different the world looks these days, we’re focusing on the feel-good moments emerging in between. When it became clear that Mardi Gras 2021 would be like no other, Caroline Thomas, a Mardi Gras artist […]

Our Here, Now column looks at trends taking hold in cities around the world. Given how different the world looks these days, we’re focusing on the feel-good moments emerging in between.

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.

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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.

One house float features a towering jester statue.

Erika Goldring/Getty

“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.

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