Hands On Carnival with Caroline Thomas

Caroline Thomas doesn’t just work for Carnival, she lives and breathes it. Thomas works behind the scenes designing theme floats and leading float-building krewes for Royal Artists. Her passion for keeping traditional Mardi Gras float-building techniques alive with her hand-painted gouache float designs, brush-stroked floats, and papier-mâché flowers makes her stand out as a tactile Mardi Gras artist. Her recent collaboration in building a giant snapping turtle puppet is helping her learn how moveable mechanisms and animation can enhance floats in the future. During the crunch time of Mardi Gras she gave me a tour of the Proteus float den, one of the krewes she designs for. The following morning we met in her eccentric Gentilly home—decorated with Mardi Gras float pieces, coats of creative color and golden-rich accents, bookshelves filled with art books and Mardi Gras history, an intimate collection of art pieces hanging on the wall, and elaborate headdresses—to discuss making a career in Carnival, float-making techniques, and how to conceptualize a parade.

How did you get started working in Carnival/Mardi Gras as an artist in New Orleans, and how many years have you worked in the industry?

I grew up in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and always came to New Orleans for Carnival, but I don’t think I really appreciated what Carnival meant until I went to school out of state. I went to school in Cincinnati, Ohio, and suddenly you’re in a space that doesn’t have Carnival, or, not to the same capacity. There’s a little German population there, but that’s it. When I started college I was getting a degree in fine art painting and my senior thesis was dealing with themes of Carnival and masking. I was just starting to understand Carnival as something larger. I feel like America is a space where we’ve lost a lot of street culture: We gather indoors for holidays and celebrations that are mostly indoor with your family.

When I graduated, I knew I wanted to move back to Louisiana. I answered a Craigslist ad from Randy Morrison (who has since passed); he was the designer for Hermes. If you knew Randy Morrison, he’s someone who talked in a floral language, and the Craigslist ad was basically promising: If you want to be the unsung hero of Carnival, you’ll be underpaid and overworked, but you will be bringing this beauty to the streets. These days I’d probably be like, ugh, I’m not gonna answer that. But as a 22-year-old…

This sounds perfect for an artist looking for work! Did you take the job?

Yeah, I worked with him for a season and it ended up being a bit of a chaotic mess because they ended up losing that contract. It did give me a taste of what I appreciate about working with Randy—even though he was kind of the quintessential absent-minded professor, and maybe a better artist than manager of a parade, he really had this idea that Carnival could be more. He was very much into telling these more complicated stories and trying to push the limits of it while trying to use new materials. After that, I was a cake decorator for a few years, but then in 2011, Richard Valadie bought Royal Artists. I think I was there at a really good time where he wanted to cultivate some artists to be taking over more responsibilities. And so within a year or two, I was starting to design Proteus with him, and then I was hooked.

What are the two parades that you are currently working on?

Through the production company, Royal Artists, we do five parades here in New Orleans and five parades in Mobile. I’ll step in if somebody needs help, or if there’s a signature float that needs to be worked on. But Proteus and Rex are my two responsibilities; I design them and I’m now the art director of Rex as of this year, so I’m also managing a team and making sure that everybody stays on the same vision.

I don’t see too many folks pursuing careers in Carnival. For someone like you who is very passionate and eager to learn more about Carnival, are you a valuable person to the industry?

It’s a tricky industry. There’s not many jobs where you can just paint eight hours a day, and I think that’s a gift. I think more people would want to do it except it’s really hard to make money at it. I do think that we should pay Mardi Gras workers more, and there should be more of a prioritization of the artist and making sure that they have safe places to work, steady employment, and benefits. But [they are] privately-funded parades, which I think is great, and there are rules on the books that you cannot be getting any type of sponsorship. But that means that all these parades are being funded by individuals in the community. You’re putting all this art production into something that only rolls for two hours, so ultimately it’s never going to be an industry anybody’s getting rich off of. So you have to be somebody who’s in it because you’re deeply passionate about it, or you’re all about the glory of tens of thousands of people seeing your art roll. It’s hard work. I think most of the floats have to be painted during the summer in order for the art production schedule to work. The summer is brutal.  When you’re up on a ladder, the higher up you are in the warehouse, the hotter it is. It’s like being in an attic. If you’re up on a float it can be dangerous. This is the first year where I was like, I have to be listening to my body, and knowing when I need to take breaks and that sort of thing.

So yeah, I wish that there was a way to bring more people into the industry because I think there’s a lot of talented people that end up getting burnt out and leaving. I’ve somehow found a way to make it work. I think it helps too that I’m very fast and I can get a lot more done, and thus get paid more than maybe other people. Not everyone can paint a float in four days.

I wish that we had more acknowledgement of some of the artists that make this stuff happen. I do love that you see this going down the street and it’s being done in this kind of anonymous way. It’s this big surprise when it comes out of the warehouses and there’s a little bit of mystery about how it’s all made… I feel like there’s a lot of people that have dedicated their lives to Carnival, that some of them want to stay behind the scenes… I want to celebrate those people because if you don’t celebrate them, you run the risk of Carnival being taken over by overseas work, or I’ve seen parades with just vinyl printings on the side of [floats].

Can you explain your process for each of your float parade designs?

It kind of depends on which parade. As far as how they choose the theme floats, Rex is a little bit more formalized, where the committee and I have to state a case on why we think this would be a good idea. Where at Proteus, I’ve been working with this particular captain for many years, so he trusts us, and we can put together a rough outline and he’ll usually be fine with it. With something like Rex and Proteus, the themes are more fantasy-based or possibly like a piece of literature or history, as opposed to something that’s more pop culture or satire. It’s a lot of research, especially if I’m representing mythology from other cultures. I want to make sure that I’m doing a thorough and deep dive into what this is about so I’m representing it in a way that seems true. Then it’s the challenge of trying to break it down into a series of floats. There’s a lot of themes that sound cool on the surface, but then how do you break that down into 20 floats? And you want them to be varied, you want there to be different tones to different floats. If you just do a water theme and every single float has waves on the front, it’s going to get boring. I start with an outline and then build that into a series of sketches and then go to color, and I’m probably one of the few ones left that doesn’t do digital. I do all the designs as hand-painted gouache paintings, and part of that is because the parades I am working on are from the 19th century, and I want to honor that. If you ever go to the Tulane digital archives and look at some of the designs from the 1800s from these parades, you understand a little better why I want to have these physical copies, because they’re so beautiful. But it’s also because I come from the background [of] being a float painter. That’s where I started, and I think there’s something about the physicality of having to paint out the design. I’m confident I’m making something that the float painter can physically paint as well.

How long does it take you to create each float design?

Probably about three days; it’s broken up into different steps. First, I do the thumbnail and all the research to figure it out. Then a day for drawing it out and sketching it and getting everything exactly where it needs to be, and this is with it getting approved along the way from both the crew and Richard, the owner of Royal Artists, to make sure that I’m making something that’s possible to be built. And then usually a day or two of actually coloring it. I feel like if I can color the design in a day, then a painter can paint that float in a week—that seems to be a good kind of rule. If I’m getting too intricate with it, then it’s going to be too much of a pain for the painter.

Is that complex, taking your paintings, your designs, and creating an actual float? Is the transition challenging to create a huge float art installation?

It’s tricky. You’re having to design your team and make sure that your artists have different strengths and weaknesses, and you want to be playing to something that is going to make their work really shine. You try to think about how that’s going to work in real life. You’re somewhat limited to each float. The actual structure of the float stays the same every year: It’s wood with stretched canvas over it. You learn how to work with the different shapes and you know which ones are going to work well to make into a giant wave, or which one would translate well into a dragon. It takes a couple of years to know what is easily accessible on the float. One thing I like about the older floats is they’re not just shoe boxes. They have a little bit more interesting shape to them, but it also means that you need to be aware of what is going to be reasonable for the painter to access. If they’re going to have to paint this very complicated design on top of an extension ladder, it’s probably not going to be their strongest work because they’re going to be physically exhausted.

There’s so much excitement going on—there’s all these vibrant colors, people in masks, throws, and it’s an overstimulating adrenaline rush. How do you gain the attention of your viewers?

It is, and as a visual artist you’re thinking of painting in a gallery: You have all these white walls around you and there’s a certain protocol to a gallery where you’re supposed to be very quiet and focused on the art. At Mardi Gras you’re having to compete with every other type of stimuli possible or you’re having to pull people away from the snack table, the kids are playing with their toys, they’re focused on the throws, and there’s the music. To really get somebody’s attention in the middle of that you really have to be making something that is going to triumph over all.

What’s your favorite Mardi Gras tradition?

I’m a big St. Anne‘s person and I think going to the river on Mardi Gras day is essential to my mental health. When I didn’t do that on the pandemic Mardi Gras, I was like, why do I feel so icky right now? And I realized I didn’t get that release and that’s really important. Also, I really love the Friday before Mardi Gras in the Quarter, and all the little walking krewes that go through. St. Augustine comes through with Hermes and I think it’s one of the days where the locals take over the Quarter. I find that really special.

Working in New Orleans gives you the opportunity to collaborate with so many different artists and mediums. What’s one of your next big projects?

I just finished doing a giant puppet collaboration. We started an artist collective called Whatchamapuppet, which is sort of a homage to Thingumajig Theatre in England and this artist Andrew Kim. He’s Korean American but he moved to England about 20 years ago and he’s heavily involved in different types of professional arts, but his love is puppetry. He travels around the world and does these workshops for people who are established artists. We had brought him in before to do a giant puppet workshop, but this time we did the lantern puppet workshop and we found some funding through LUNA Fête to do it. He came over, and over 10 days, built this giant alligator snapping turtle puppet with us, and we were able to premiere it on the Gretna side for LUNA Fête.

From all the research that you’ve done on Mardi Gras for your projects you’ve become very knowledgeable on the history of Carnival. In recent years you have also started a page on Instagram called @feastandfolly. Can you tell me a little about your interest in preserving and sharing the information you discover while researching?

I started that Instagram when I knew that we were going to get the Rex contract. We hadn’t officially announced it yet but I knew it was coming, and I felt a lot of pressure that if I was going to be filling those shoes, that I needed to really know a lot more about Carnival. I’m somebody who has always been fascinated with it but I had it all in these bits and pieces in my brain, and I wanted to lay it all out. With the internet you can go find somebody in Italy that is building stuff in some Sicilian warehouse and this beautiful papier-mâché, and it’s just there for you to see. I started sharing this stuff, and I always make sure of crediting the artist and making sure that people go follow this person and the amazing work they’re doing. And it wasn’t just Carnival art with @feastandfolly, [it’s] anything that was masking or processional art traditions.

During COVID, one of your projects was to keep the float parade alive through the building of house floats. How did this idea develop?

Right, yes. I partnered with the Krewe of Red Beans [which is] the method that we used for funding, because when Carnival got canceled, suddenly you had a workforce that was out of work. I knew that I could keep myself personally employed, just through private commissions. But the problem with that is if you want to pay yourself what you’re worth, you’re probably going to end up having to do commissions for big companies or people that own houses on St. Charles. That just didn’t seem like it really got into the spirit of what house floats should be about. So we were able to do more of a raffle style where we had a GoFundMe and people could donate to that GoFundMe. They could donate a dollar or they could donate $100. When we would hit a certain threshold, we would pull names from that list of donors, and as long as you live in Orleans Parish, you owned your home, or you had permission from your landlord, we would make something custom for your house.

We did a series of houses at the request of Victor Harris and his neighborhood honoring some Mardi Gras Indians who had passed. There was this nun in Central City, Sister Mary Lou [Specha], who owns Hotel Hope, which is a shelter for women with children that they can stay for a period of time, and she helps them get set up with an apartment or whatever they need after that, kind of a landing pad. She raised part of the money and then we matched the rest of it to have her house converted into a house float. She was able to use that house float for raising money for Hotel Hope and raising awareness about her projects. I think it was a great way to bring the community together. And obviously it was not the same as Mardi Gras, but we were able to keep people’s spirits a little higher.

House float to benefit Hotel Hope, Mardi Gras 2021
Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

In New Orleans we see a lot of Carnival flowers on our floats. How and when did this become a part of our tradition?

I obsessively look at parades all around the world and nobody else does that. That’s unique to New Orleans. I don’t know the official date. You can look at videos of some of the floats back from the 1900s and you see versions of them on the floats. What I think makes it more of a folk art than a commercial art form is that a lot of these traditions have been passed down through generations of artists. And we’re not even sure who developed these original techniques, but they’ve been passed down. I had some old timers teach me the tricks of the trade and I’m really grateful for that.

Are they papier-mâché flowers? What is the process to make them?

Most of them are. It’s two pieces of thick paper called tag paper. It’s a little thicker than poster board, sandwiched between a piece of wire, and we use a contact cement that initially was developed for applying linoleum floors. You can build pretty much anything with it, it doesn’t have to be a flower—it can be a starburst or it can be fire, water, or all kinds of things. They work really well with the floats, especially with the more traditional floats that are on the original wagon wheels. At Proteus all the floats are original to the 1800s and what used to be old trash wagons for the city. There’s this kind of jostling that happens when the floats roll down the streets, especially New Orleans streets, with all of our lovely potholes. You can use that to your advantage if you get the right gauge in the wire, so that they’re just stiff enough that they’ll kind of hold their shape but it’s just enough of a pliability to them that they move with the flow. And we try to do that with the props. If we can have something that is slightly moving on the prop, like a bobblehead, you can really use our streets to your advantage in that way. It makes the float look like it’s alive.

And then each flower is hand painted?

It is, yeah.

As well as the floats that you design?

Yes, Royal Artists has a different technique than some of the other parades. We like that hand-brushed technique—it’s a lot more work, as opposed to a spray gun aesthetic, which, there’s nothing wrong with a nice kind of airbrushed finish. I think that can look quite lovely.  At Royal Artists, we just think there’s something nice about being able to see the mark of the artist.  I’ve always been that type of painter. I love painters where you can really see the brush strokes.

Where are you finding your float painters for your crew?

They come from all over. Some of them have fine art degrees. We just hired this guy who’s Mr. Balloon Hands on Instagram, and he comes from the graffiti and music festival world. We’ve had a former tattoo artist come through. I’d say it’s about half people that have some kind of formal training and half that are self-taught. It’s a pretty blue-collar job for the most part. We’ve got all the good New Orleans accents at my workplace.

Caroline Thomas and Andrew Kim work on the alligator snapping turtle puppet for the Whatchamapuppet collective
Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Where else have you traveled to experience Mardi Gras or Carnival?

I got a chance back in 2021 to go to Viareggio, Italy, which was a real treat. It was a unique experience because when they had their Carnival canceled for COVID what they ended up doing was just having Carnival later, so they did it in September… I went with Richard Valadie and his wife, Scarlett, and we met up with Jonathan Bertuccelli, who owns Studio 3 Nola here. He is a third generation float-builder from Viareggio. He was able to show us around. All of his cousins and a lot of his family still work in the industry, and he was also able to work as a translator. We were able to go to the Cittadella, which is where all of the floats are contained. It looks like an airplane hangar, it’s massive.

Do they have larger float installations in Viareggio than what we see here in New Orleans?

Oh yeah, it’s the full range. The way they have it set up, it’s all funded by the city so it’s kind of a different operation in a lot of ways. The way that it was described to me, you start out building walking heads, and if you win awards as walking heads then you’ll be given funding the next year to do a small mini-float. And if you win awards in that, you’ll get funding to do a medium-sized float. And then the top tier, the budget is about $250,000 for one float. And they build them in about four months, and they’re about three or four stories high, they’re massive… for them to not be top-heavy, they had these super expensive chassis that have hydraulics built into them. The people that built them also built a lot of stuff for NASA.

Are these floats more modernized?

Yeah, their big thing is animation, so all the floats have all these moving parts on them. And some of them are done with computers and pistons. It’s all very modern.

Photo by Tammie Quintana

How has your trip to Viareggio influenced the way you design floats today? What is the one big inspiration that you brought home with you?

Yeah, I think a lot about movement. That’s when I started making the giant puppets because I needed to figure out how these mechanisms work and learn about how animation can lend this incredible dimension to a float. I also appreciated that they still use a lot of papier-mâché over there. Royal Artists uses a lot of papier-mâché, and it solidified to me that this is really the way. There’s something very primal about papier-mâché. A lot of more modern floats are done with carved foam and maybe a layer of fiberglass or fiberglass from a mold. And it’s fine, I think there’s room for everybody in Mardi Gras. But I think there’s something about papier-mâché and how basic it is that I really gravitated to.

What is it like building with papier-mâché, a traditional building material?

There’s so much you can do with it, and it’s so malleable too. I think in an age since the Industrial Revolution there’s been these conversations about art: How do you make art in the age of mass production? But we’re entering another one of those ages with AI, and, in certain ways, it’s going to be a really useful tool for artists. But in other ways, it’s pulling away from art being an act, you know?


Tactile, like, the process of making a thing, and what goes into that, versus something that you can just make by putting some words into a computer.

How do you feel about the advancements in modern technology in the industry like 3D printers and software that will digitally draw floats?

I’m sure there will be people that learn to use that in a way that is its own art form, and I think it can be very democratic for people that maybe do not have tactile skills. The joke that you hear a lot recently is like: Wow, we have all this new technology and instead of it saving world hunger it’s writing screenplays for us. The thing I appreciate about Mardi Gras in general is that it’s so experiential, it is ephemeral, and it’s something that exists within this moment, as opposed to something that is this content that you’re creating for a streaming website. I’m not really interested in making floats that look like they could roll at Disney or Universal Studios. I want to be making something that looks like it was handmade in the community. And I think also for a lot of people in the modern age, the only art they consume is something that’s on a movie screen. They never have had the experience, unless [they’re] super-wealthy, of having art that’s being custom made, for you. And Carnival is one of the few examples of art that can be made for the city of New Orleans. For the community.

What happens when we’re done with Mardi Gras and the season is over? What do you do with all the installations on the Mardi Gras floats and all of the things you’ve built?

The frame of the float stays the same and the other components on the float—like there’s usually a prop on the front and then there are the secondary elements, usually flowers, different types of plywood cutouts or secondary sculptural elements—all of that stuff gets taken off and the stuff that is owned by Royal Artists, we will try our best to repurpose. We would never just roll the same float in another parade, or even really the same prop, but we can take those props and reuse them. For example, Cleopatra one year is going to be a Greek goddess the next year, that sort of thing.

So they are recycled?

Yeah, we recycle them, and we find ways to reuse elements on the floats. But the floats themselves are just whited out every year, except for the signature floats. They might stay the same, which some artists have a really hard time with.

There is so much love and passion that gets put into each float project.

Yeah, and then it rolls for two hours and everything gets destroyed. I personally love it. I think it’s thrilling. It’s really freeing to make art knowing that it’s going to last for this moment in time and maybe it’ll get documented in a photograph, but that’s it. It’s gone. It’s like a Tibetan sand painting that you spend all this time on and then poof! Historically, like in Europe, they used to burn the floats at the end of the season.

Is this a part of our Mardi Gras ritual to release the old to make room for the new?

In general, Mardi Gras, at its core, is a life-death-rebirth ritual, and it is a way for humans to learn how to deal with death. Lent represents a symbolic death and then we have the rebirth with Easter. I think it can be very cathartic. That’s why I love going to St. Anne’s on the river. It’s another kind of ritual about letting go.

I would like to know if there are any female artists who influence your work? Who are the pioneers in Mardi Gras, float-building, costume designing, and masking? Who do you look to for inspiration?

Historically, there have been some awesome costume and float designers that were women in New Orleans, because having Newcomb-Tulane College of Art here, they facilitated a lot of Mardi Gras artists. I highly recommend that people look up Jennie Wilde and Carlotta Bonnecaze. I think there is a tide shifting, in general, of more women being involved in Carnival. Even when I went to Viareggio, one of the artists that we got to know, his daughter is taking over, and that’s a big deal. It’s just historically been more of a men’s industry because anytime you’re dealing with art that requires power tools and building of things…

Has construction work made this job more challenging for women?

Yeah, exactly. But I have been very lucky at Royal Artists, where there are a lot of women that work there, and I feel like it’s a very safe place for women to work. Lisa Browning, who’s been there for years, she’s a fixture of Royal Artists and definitely somebody who’s going to police that space and make sure that it’s safe for women. And there’s just a lot of awesome women working with the New Orleans Mardi Gras culture: My friend Dana Beuhler who does a lot of custom Mardi Gras work and flowers, or someone like Jenny Campbell who does beautiful work both making costumes and also working with the state museum, preserving those costumes and sharing that history. I think in a lot of ways, I find New Orleans fascinating because it can attract a lot of Peter Pan types, but I also feel like women thrive in New Orleans.

I love to see women nurturing this tradition and this culture in New Orleans and being leaders.

I think sometimes women can have a disadvantage in those spaces simply because they just never thought that the girls in our family needed to know how to use power tools. And it wasn’t until I got a job at Royal Artists, where suddenly I had to get this crash course the first time I used a jigsaw. It terrified me because it’s like, kicking back on me, and I didn’t know if that was supposed to happen or not.

Historically, have there been many female leaders in Mardi Gras krewes?

I think there’s a slightly older generation than me that came into Mardi Gras in the ‘80s and ‘90s, of women, a lot of them from the punk scene who really helped break down some of those barriers. Hillary Thompson, she certainly ran her own parade for years, and there’s definitely been some people within the walking krewe community. For example, for Box of Wine, Anne Marie is definitely somebody who has really had to be aggressive to maintain the quality of that parade. Some historic parades like Iris, it’s not until the ‘80s or ‘90s that you start to see women taking on more of those leadership roles. Today when I think of some of the most popular parades in Mardi Gras, like the Muses parade, I think there’s something to be said about the female leadership and how they’ve been able to bring in a more modern era of parading. It’s due time. It’s exciting to see that transition happen.

For more info, check out carolinemthomas.com and @feastandfolly on Instagram.
Top and bottom photos: Caroline Thomas at the Royal Artists studios. Photos by Tammie Quintana

Transcription by Michelle Pierce

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