purple, green, and yellow illustration of people walking on a street at mardi gras

House Floats, Beads, and the Unstoppable Spirit of Mardi Gras

With traditional parades canceled, undeterred New Orleans residents are turning their homes into house floats, putting local artists to work and the city's resilience on display. Laissez les bon temps rouler, they say, because there’s still plenty to celebrate!

Every day, for nearly a week, they stopped at the 100-foot-long wooden fence in New Orleans' St. Roch neighborhood to check on artist Ashley Beach's progress.

Mr. Al and his grandson made small talk as Beach applied primer to the planks' bumpy surface. A mother and her young daughter paused on their daily walks to watch as she chalked outlines. A budding teenage artist carefully studied her technique as she filled in the sketch with spray paint.

In all, it took six days for Beach to create a bright, kinetic mural of musical instruments bouncing and swaying down the fence line, much like the musicians who play them.

person in a red coat standing in front of a multicolor mural
Artist Ashley Beach at the fence she painted in New Orleans' St. Roch neighborhood. The mural is part of homeowners Tara and Ben Burkhart's house float. Forrest Reiff

Maybe, just maybe, she could've finished a day earlier, had she chatted less. But that's just not Beach's—nor New Orleans'—way.

"I felt like I was listening to the music of the neighborhood, and that was informing every stroke," she said of the conversations she had. "People were super excited."

It's not the kind of work Beach expected to be doing before the start of south Louisiana's Carnival season. Normally, she would be part of a cadre of artists putting the finishing touches on parade floats. But, then again, little about the past 10 months is what anyone expected.

The coronavirus pandemic has entered a new calendar year and continues to wreak havoc on the country's economy and psyche. New Orleans, a city long reliant on tourist dollars for jobs and its survival, is seeing a fraction of the visitors it usually entertains.

As Mardi Gras approaches—it falls on February 16 this year— some of the city's celebrated restaurants have closed permanently; time-tested watering holes are barely hanging on; bartenders, servers, and musicians are out of work.

Then there's the niche profession of the Mardi Gras artist, folks who sculpt and paint the elaborate scenery on the hundreds of parade floats used in dozens of parades. They were left jobless when the city and its neighbors, in the name of public health, canceled all Carnival parades, the central events around which the rest of the season's festivities orbit.

Anywhere else, that might have been the end of it. The Carnival season might have been left to wither on the vine.

But it's New Orleans, a place Beach describes as "rooted in resourcefulness and creativity." So, instead of allowing the city's signature event to fade into the background, some of its residents decided a radical transformation was needed for 2021.

In lieu of the parades that usually draw thousands of people, jammed together, screaming for float riders to throw them shiny, brightly colored beads or cups or stuffed animals, dozens of neighborhoods have embraced the idea of house floats.

That's right—house floats.

Every year during Carnival, the people of New Orleans decorate their homes in purple, green, and gold Mardi Gras wreaths, banners, and lights. But this year, they are being encouraged to step up their decorations—or, better yet, to hire an out-of-work Mardi Gras artist who can help. That's how Beach found herself painting a fence that belongs to Tara and Ben Burkhart.

Her mural is part of the couple's overall presentation inspired by the Little Richard song, "Tutti Frutti," recorded in New Orleans in 1955. It fits nicely into the neighborhood's overall theme: St. Roch (pronounced Rock) and Roll.

But, across the city, others are also painting, building props, and reacquainting themselves with papier-mâché. So far, nearly 40 neighborhoods in New Orleans and its suburbs are signed up to participate, and each one has settled on a theme.

mardi gras floats in front yard of house
These homes display some of the colorful house float designs created for the Krewe of House Floats to mark this year’s Carnival Season in New Orleans. Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Some Louisiana expats, in places like Houston and Washington, D.C., are getting in on the action, too, no doubt confusing neighbors who have no idea that the Carnival season began on January 6 and continues until Mardi Gras Day.

Megan Boudreaux, who started all of this with a joking remark on Twitter, didn't anticipate this level of enthusiasm.

When Boudreaux heard in mid-November about the decision to cancel parades, she tweeted that she should turn her house into a float and toss the beads stored in her attic at passersby. She should've known you can't throw words around casually in a city prone to spontaneous celebrations, a city where a sinkhole opening up in the Central Business District prompted a Sinkhole de Mayo party.

The next thing Boudreaux knew, she had created a socially distanced alternative to large, virus-friendly Carnival events: the Krewe of House Floats. Named for the krewes, or private clubs, that sponsor the various Carnival parades, the idea took off. A Facebook page started to promote house floats now has nearly 12,000 members.

The group released an interactive map that shows New Orleans neighborhoods and their adopted float themes. The Irish Channel neighborhood aptly chose "channel surfing," while Hollygrove is, "nesting in place," and Algiers Point is, "staycation paradise."

"It really expanded super quickly," said Boudreaux, still in some disbelief.

About 3,000 homes are included on the house float map, allowing locals to walk, bike, or drive by and "ooh" and "ahh" over the decorations, much like they might with Christmas lights. Eventually, anyone will be able to view the houses virtually, though that part hasn't been figured out yet, Boudreaux said.

The house floats are a chance for neighbors to uplift neighbors, a reminder that "we're all in this together, even if we can't hang out together," she added.

mardi gras quote on designed background
Rebecca Hart

Krewe of House Floats organizers have asked participants to buy the trinkets they'll throw from local entrepreneurs whenever possible. In addition to traditional beads, expect to see embellished masks and gussied up bottles of pocket-sized hand sanitizer.

A separate initiative, Hire a Mardi Gras Artist, started with the goal of generating jobs by collecting donations to create 40 professionally designed float houses.

For folks who are just getting by financially, Krewe of House Floats pantries have been set up to provide decorating supplies free of charge. "We want everybody to be able to participate. This isn't just for folks who can hire professional float builders," said Dawn Carl, neighborhood krewe captain for the St. Claude area and the French Quarter.

Inspired to do more, the Fairgrounds neighborhood has challenged other krewes to a food drive competition benefiting Second Harvest Food Bank.

Everybody is acutely aware of how the virus has devastated the tourism-dependent region, Boudreaux said, so the Krewe of House Floats just organically expanded in an altruistic direction.

"The past year has been rough on people in so many ways," said Jeanne Vidrine, krewe captain of the Mid-City area.

The Burkharts were thrilled to employ Beach, a New Orleans native who is a Mardi Gras artist at a local studio and also specializes in live paintings during music shows. They liked her work so much that they also had her paint murals in their house.

Though newly transplanted from Illinois, the couple knows the city well, having visited for years before relocating.

"To be able to hire an artist and help the community in that way has been really cool," said Tara Burkhart, St. Roch's krewe captain. "This has been quite the year. We're learning how to do Mardi Gras safely—we're learning how to do it at home. But the spirit is still alive."

Tara Burkhart, St. Roch's krewe captain

We're learning how to do it at home. But the spirit is still alive.

— Tara Burkhart, St. Roch's krewe captain
man painting mardi gras float
Rene Pierre of Crescent City Creative paints a house float panel in his New Orleans backyard on December 11, 2020. Pierre has worked as a Mardi Gras artist for many years. He started taking orders to design house floats after neighborhood krewes rallied to keep the spirit of Mardi Gras going during the pandemic. Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Carl can feel it, too. Her neighborhood, which has adopted the theme Jazzin' in St. Claude, includes the Musicians' Village, a complex of six dozen residences constructed by Habitat for Humanity for musicians who lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans "is a city where neighbors help each other out a lot," she said. "Resiliency is about taking care of your neighbor. We've been in hard places before. COVID is just another in the blip of things. You carry on and do what you gotta do."

Over in Mid-City, Vidrine is thankful for the distraction that the house floats provide.

house with mardi gras decorations with ladder
Artist Joey Mercer puts the final touches on The Queen's Jubilee house float along St. Charles Ave. on January 13, 2021, for the Hire a Mardi Gras Artist project. Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Vidrine is spending roughly $1,000 to transform her home and yard to a site worthy of ancient Greece, with a giant Pegasus and an Olympic flame. The way she sees it, she wasn't able to take a vacation last year because of the pandemic. So, instead, she'll spend the money on this. She's commissioned an art studio to help her design Greek maidens and silhouette cutouts of parade-goers. And she'll rent columns from the studio, "because when you're in Ancient Greece, you need columns," she said.

Big and bold displays are on the minds of other neighbors as well.

"A lot of people are going for full-on, three-dimensional Mama Jama floats," Vidrine said.

She, too, plans on turning heads with her house float. "I'm gonna want to add and add and add," Vidrine said. "I just want it to be over-the-top fabulous."

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