Art for the People
Creating floats for Mardi Gras gives New Orleans artist Caroline Thomas a sense of purpose
Photos by Ryan Hodgeson-Rigsbee
The Rex Organization’s motto, “Pro Bono Publico,” has special meaning to New Orleans Mardi Gras float designer and painter Caroline Thomas. “For the Public Good” gives purpose to her art.
Seeing Thomas and other members of the Royal Artists crew at work preparing floats for the 2022 carnival season calls to mind what novelist Pat Conroy once wrote about another place and another time — “It’s where angels and butterflies are born.” Thomas and her team work year round, creating papier-mâché fantasies of the sublime and grotesque, monarchs and knaves, dragons and trolls, “angels and butterflies” for Carnival floats destined to thrill frantic arm-waving parade-goers.
Thomas and her employer Royal Artists Inc. are doing well in the carnival fantasy business. Founded by Herbert Jahncke and now owned by Richard Valadie, Royal Artists has contracts with Rex, Proteus, Babylon, the Krewe d’Etat and the Knights of Chaos as well as carnival organizations in Mobile, Alabama.
Of the local krewes, Thomas designs floats for Rex and Proteus. She does them the original way, not on computers. With a loving sense of tradition, she begins with a concept and then draws thumbnail sketches followed by full pencil drawings, and finally, watercolor paintings for each float. The floats and their decorative figures are built up layers of plywood, painted cardboard and papier-mâché on canvas over wire and wooden frames. For Proteus, she submits design ideas to the organization for consideration. Rex, however, has a committee, headed by Rex Artistic Director Henri Schindler, which determines the theme that is passed on to Thomas and Valadie.
“Caroline is a wonderful artist and a worthy successor to a number of superb women who designed Rex parades for decades,” says Stephen Hales, Rex historian, archivist and author of two books on the history of the Rex Organization. “One thing that distinguishes Caroline from them is that Caroline’s art includes not only the preparation of the sketches but also actually painting sculptures and floats in the den — to my knowledge none of her predecessors did both.”
Thomas, who was born in New Orleans but grew up in Baton Rouge, didn’t start out to be a carnival float designer. She studied fine art painting at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, but found it too “individualistic.” Then in her senior year she received a grant to study carnival art in Trinidad. Seeing the elaborate street festivals and carnival masking there, including Mardi Gras Indians and Baby Dolls similar to those in New Orleans, changed her life. After graduation in 2008, she returned to New Orleans where she got a job with Royal Artists to work on Hermes floats. When that ended, she did a bit of cake decorating before rejoining Royal Artists in 2011 where she enjoys designing floats and the underlying concept of public art.
“Mardi Gras,” Thomas says, “has an inherent meaning built into it because it is something you are giving back to the community and it’s free for people. You can be dirt poor and you can still go see this great spectacular show. There’s so much tradition in it. People and their families have been meeting in the same spot for generations to watch parades. You feel like you are a culture bearer. And it’s fun to see people’s reactions.”
Thomas loves the artistic freedom Rex and Proteus give her. Like the time she chose Richard Wagner’s operas “The Ring Cycle” as Proteus’s theme for that year’s parade. She wasn’t sure people understood the operas, but they enjoyed the dragons and trolls.
“For Proteus, I’m always thinking about ideas,” she says. “One of the things I love about my job is I get to read mythology, history and literature. I’m always on the hunt for some interesting piece of mythology. And what I do appreciate with Proteus and with Rex is that they really don’t mind if we go a little obscure with the theme. I never want to be a gatekeeper for Mardi Gras, but it’s better than some pop culture theme.”
To Thomas, Carnival in New Orleans is an inseparable combination of European, African-American, Creole and Afro-Caribbean elements unlike carnival anywhere else. That makes the field rich for a float designer.
Last year when COVID-19 forced the city to cancel Mardi Gras, Thomas worked with the Krewe of Red Beans to raise money for unemployed artists, older musicians and others in the city’s cultural community. Responding to an online story that encouraged people to decorate their houses for Mardi Gras, Thomas formed Hire a Mardi Gras Artist to design and construct “house floats” for people in Orleans Parish. Those who donated to the project had their names entered into a raffle. If chosen, artists then designed and built “floats” on the front of their houses. Part of the money went to the Krewe of Red Beans and the rest to the artists who built the house floats. She says they raised $300,000, created 48 jobs and completed 20 house floats.
One might wonder how Thomas feels after carnival is over and she has to strip down a year’s work to begin over again for the next carnival season.
“It’s such a weird way to make art,” Thomas says. “You spend all year on it and it’s this big release that lasts just a couple of hours and then you take it back in and destroy it. I find it really exciting. There are some people who can’t emotionally handle it, watching that thing that they spent making all year being whited out. It’s too difficult for them.”
For Thomas, the big emotional rush comes when she is out on the street, watching her floats go by.
“It’s thrilling,” she says, glancing around the den as artists moved about unfinished floats building fantasies-for-a-day. “New Orleans during carnival is a city filled with art.”
And, “for the public good,” so is her imagination.
Carrie Fonder: Little Labors
Explores power in art, through March 12. Acadiana Center for the Arts, Lafayette. acadianacenterforthearts.org
Monumental: Colossal Works from the Collection
Monumental artwork from the museum’s collection, through Feb. 19. Alexandria Museum of Art. themuseum.org
Iridescence: Juried Competition
International juried art show, exploring theme of iridescence, through July 31. Louisiana Art & Science Museum, Baton Rouge. lasm.org
Prospect. 5: Yesterday We Said Tomorrow
Citywide international art show, through Jan. 23. prospectnew-orleans.org
59th Annual Juried Competition
Feb. 24 through May 7, Masur Museum of Art. masurmuseum.org
*Check museums for COVID-19 schedules.