When the mayor of New Orleans cancelled Mardi Gras 2021 late last November, crews sheathed their half-built floats in plastic to await better times, and Caroline Thomas, a Mardi Gras artist, called her old friend Devin De Wulf with an idea.
Since March, De Wulf, founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, has spearheaded efforts to support New Orleanians effected by the pandemic through Feed the Front Line and Feed the Second Line, hiring out-of-work musicians and restaurant workers to prepare and deliver food to E.R. staff and Mardi Gras Indians, members of Social Aid & Pleasure clubs and other community elders. Now, there was a new opportunity to help those who create and sustain New Orleans’s culture.
As a painter and designer for Royal Artists, who creates the floats for Rex, Proteus, and Krewe d’Etat, Thomas knew that layoffs were coming. She also knew that New Orleans needed Mardi Gras this year more than ever. Carnival, after all, is designed to warm us in the winters of our lives. It is a feast in anticipation of fasting, a masquerade to remove the barriers that stand between us, a way to laugh at a world that’s too serious to take. “It’s a catharsis,” Thomas says, “before a symbolic death, with the understanding that there will be a rebirth in the spring.”
New Orleanians were ready to take the festivities into our own hands. If parades wouldn’t roll and we couldn’t leave our houses, we would make Mardi Gras happen in—and on—our own homes. Almost overnight, a Facebook page for the “Krewe of House Floats” gathered 7,000 followers, and Thomas was fielding dozens of requests from people hoping to hire her to decorate their homes.
But it was not that simple. Laid off from their regular jobs, artists wouldn’t have the workspaces, tools, and teams they needed to get big projects done. Thomas could also foresee that the true Carnival spirit, that Bakhtinian ideal of joyous and profane anti-elitism—a party in the streets—would be perverted if house floats became the sole province of the rich. So, Thomas proposed to de Wulf that they crowdsource funding instead, making each donation—from ten dollars to five thousand dollars—a raffle ticket. Every time a house float was funded, they’d pick a house out of a hat.