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Hard Work: Painting Floats with Caroline Thomas

We sat down with float painter Caroline Thomas – one of many unsung heroes of Mardi Gras – to talk about what drew her to carnival work in the first place and what it's been like to make it a career.

We sat down with float painter Caroline Thomas – one of many unsung heroes of Mardi Gras – to talk about what drew her to carnival work in the first place and what it's been like to make it a career.

How did you find your career in float painting?

I'm a Louisiana native, and grew up going to Mardi Gras, but I don't think I fully appreciated it until I moved out of state for art school and was able to see it from a distance. I played hooky and came down for the Mardi Gras right after Katrina, and watching people work out real trauma and grief out on the streets with costumes and parading and dance made me realize that Carnival serves a much more important role than I'd previously given it credit. I started doing a lot of artwork about masking and ritual, and after I graduated I came across Craigslist ad by Randy Morrison, who was the sculptor and designer of Hermes at the time. The ad promised I would be an "unsung hero" of Mardi Gras, overworked and overpaid, which, to a young art grad, seemed so romantic and noble (ha). I worked a season with Hermes, but it was kind of a mess due to Mardi Gras politics, but i loved the work, and circled back around a couple years later. I started working for Royal Artists on Proteus, Krewe d'Etat, Knights of Chaos, and the occasional Mobile parade. We just landed the Rex contract, so everyone is on cloud nine right now.

Can you describe the float painting process for us?

I design as well and paint, so my job starts up about a week or two after Mardi Gras. The process is different for every parade, but for Proteus, Richard Valadie (the owner of Royal Artists) and I sit down and come up with about three possible theme ideas. The captain picks from those, and then I start designing each float, starting with a black and white sketch and then a fully rendered watercolor. After that I start painting, along with one or two other artists. The nice thing about the Proteus floats being older and thus smaller, is that the painter doesn't have to do everything with a spray gun. There's still some time constraints, but we can get a lot more expressive and creative with the paint jobs. One thing that should be noted is that float painting is hard work. It's a highly physical job, up and down extension ladders, and it can be down right brutal in the summer in those metal warehouses. It's a good thing Hansen's SnoBliz is around the corner.

Is there a theme amongst Mardi Gras that always gets you excited?

I do enjoy painting a good caricature, but I'm a sucker for the mythology. I love that Proteus is open for really esoteric, mystical themes. We did Wagner's Ring Cycle a few years back, which was a total blast.

“I played hooky and came down for the Mardi Gras right after Katrina, and watching people work out real trauma and grief out on the streets with costumes and parading and dance made me realize that Carnival serves a much more important role than I'd previously given it credit.”

In your experience, what is the most fulfilling aspect of creating the float?

The creative cycle for floats is so wild: we spend all year working in secret, they roll for two or three hours, after which they get dismantled and whited out for next year. So needless to say it's a rush to see them finally roll out. The neighbors and Mardi Gras aficionados gather to check out the floats, the krewe members are pregaming and blasting music, the marching bands are warming up, and there's just a great energy to the whole thing. I love that I get to make art serves such a public purpose.

Has your work shaped or changed your experience of New Orleans?

I used to much more reserved and shy. Costuming and parading is such a useful tool to connect to with strangers. New Orleans is all about community, and I think Mardi Gras has a lot to do with that.

Are there any float artists or artists in general that inspire your work?

I went to Trinidad for Carnival when I was first starting out, which turned me on to some amazing artists coming out of the Caribbean. Peter Minshall in particular really bridges that gap between theater and Carnival and showed me that Mardi Gras can be just as legitimate an art form as anything hanging in a gallery. I'm also continually amazed by the float builders that come out of Viareggio, Italy.

“One thing that should be noted is that float painting is hard work. It's a highly physical job, up and down extension ladders, and it can be down right brutal in the summer in those metal warehouses. It's a good thing Hansen's SnoBliz is around the corner.”

What about any mentors?

I didn't have any mentors per se, but I find the community of artists in the industry to be incredibly loyal and willing to share their trade secrets. We're always teaching and supporting each other.

What are your creative interests outside of float painting?

I make headpieces. I try to take some of the techniques of float building and scale them down for costumes. You can see my work on Instagram.

What is inspiring/motivating your current work?

Trying to find the balance between old and new. I design Proteus, which was established in 1882, and in 2020 I'll start designing for Rex, which has been rolling since 1872, and there's no way to work on those parades without feeling like a caregiver of their history. At the same time, Mardi Gras has changed drastically in my lifetime, and it might seem counter intuitive, but sometimes in order to keep a tradition alive, it has to adapt. Finding that balance is really interesting to me.

After creating the floats, do you still make time to enjoy them too?

Yes - I find it really important to sit back and watch. Otherwise I'd burn out and stop finding the work inspiring. Though I have been told I can take a bit of the magic out of watching the parades, because I'm going to be the first to notice a rip in the canopy that should have been repaired or when a krewe is recycling the same prop. But I'm also the first to gush with excitement if I see something new and fresh out on the parade route, so I think it evens out.

“...I'm going to be the first to notice a rip in the canopy that should have been repaired or when a krewe is recycling the same prop. But I'm also the first to gush with excitement if I see something new and fresh out on the parade route...”
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