It’s glitter season in New Orleans. A time for feathers, papier-mache, sequins, paint, bailing wire, bones, and just about any other item that can be used for decoration. Across garages, kitchen tables and warehouses, residents are feverishly sewing elaborate costumes, painting floats and decorating custom throws.
Outside of New Orleans, Mardi Gras has often been perceived as a raucous time of drinking too much beer, throwing beads and nudity. But to those who live here and essentially put on the show for the world, it’s a wildly creative time of personal expression, rich history and family fun. Behind the parades and pageantry are regular citizens who spend all year and often a lot of their own money to transform the city and themselves for a few days.
The Associated Press talked to some of the men and women who make the magic happen.
Cari Rhoton uses glitter as a verb. In the garage of her Kenner, La., home she and her friends gather Sunday evenings to glitter shoes and decorate boots, ballet flats and stilettos. Rhoton is a member of the all-female Krewe of Muses whose 1,030 members paraded on Feb. 4. The women throw beads and other “throws” to the crowd, but the real prizes are the roughly 30 custom-designed shoes that each woman is encouraged to make and hand out to lucky parade watchers.
Rhoton gathers shoes all year round. Friends drop them off at her house or she finds them at garage sales or thrift stores. Sunday evenings she sits in her “Glitterage” — a two-car garage where she has organized boxes of different colors of glitter, sequins and beads, a glue gun and boxes of embellishments that she’ll put on the shoes.
“They’re little pieces of folk art I believe,” she said. “You hand them off the float to people who come to the parade and it is a treasure. Once you give a shoe to someone you want to keep making shoes every year.”
‘An art form’
Like all good New Orleans creative projects, the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus was conceived in a bar, said Ryan Ballard, who is the group’s “Overlord.” Ballard and a friend were talking about how there was no crossover between the science fiction and fantasy fans who dressed up for events like Comic-Con and Mardi Gras.
The name is a mash-up of Chewbacca, the furry Wookiee from “Star Wars” who was longtime friend to Han Solo, and Bacchus, the god of wine. Started six years ago, as a small group of sci-fi fans, Chewbacchus has grown into a parade of roughly 2,500 people and includes such diverse sub-krewes as the Rolling Elliotts, who dress up as Elliott from the film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and ride bikes, and Krewe du Who, which celebrates the TV show “Dr. Who.”
“For a lot of people who have never experienced Mardi Gras they think it’s like girls gone wild. There’s the cheap plastic beads. There’s a bunch of people who get really drunk,” said Ballard. “But that’s really not what Mardi Gras is about. Mardi Gras is about, it’s an art form. … We’re making the universe one little drop better by doing this crazy, silly, whimsical thing we do.”
Lured by the drums
For Tyrone Casby it was the sound of the drums that lured him in. Casby is the big chief of the Mohawk Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans. As a young boy, he remembers sneaking off to watch and listen to his brother practice the drums with his tribe. In 1967 he made his first suit and in 1980 he became the chief of the Mohawk Hunters, the only tribe on the Mississippi River city’s west bank.
Casby said the Indian outfits are, in part, a tribute to the Native Americans who would hide runaway slaves. But the drumbeats, singing and chanting are also an expression of the African culture from which they came. At the beginning, the outfits were made out of whatever people could find, and were burned after Mardi Gras, said Casby. But over time, they have evolved into elaborate works of art that take months to complete and are often preserved for posterity.
Come Fat Tuesday morning, the tribe will congregate at one spot in their outfits, and commence the day by singing “Indian Red,” a prayer asking God to guide them. Then they travel through the community, chanting and singing, and stopping at various bars, restaurants or houses for food and drink.
“For me it’s the drumbeats. And it still is. When I hear a certain drumbeat of music I’m ready to start sewing,” Casby said.
It started innocently enough. Chanel Lafargue’s husband, a member of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, asked her to decorate his coconuts, the signature throw that the group gives away during their parade. Fast forward many years later and Lafargue is now surrounded in the small workroom above her family’s produce shop with hundreds of bags of coconuts and glitter — lots of glitter.
Lafargue has decorated tens of thousands of coconuts for her husband and his friends over the years. The coconut — called the “Golden Nugget” — has been given out by the historically black organization since about 1910. The original coconuts had the milk and coconut still inside. The modern version is just the shell with the hair removed, the coconut and the milk taken out and then resealed. Lafargue has painted hers with maps of Africa, scenes of stars and suns and likenesses of President Barack Obama.
“For the past few Mardi Grases I have been delivering coconuts up till Mardi Gras morning. Literally carrying coconuts to the floats for people who didn’t have time to come and pick their coconuts up,” she said.
Artist at work
When the parade of the Rex Organization rolls down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras morning, the last float parade of the Carnival season, Raymond Joseph Bowie Sr. will likely not be among the throngs of onlookers throwing beads and cheering on the float. After months of increasingly intense work painting floats, the master artist at Kern Studios is generally too exhausted to do much besides watch the elaborate procession he helped create on television.
Bowie started painting floats back in 1977. Bowie doesn’t have formal art training but has progressed over the years to work on floats in some of the most well-known parades of Mardi Gras including Rex, Orpheus, Endymion and Zulu. Listening to music through his paint-spattered headphones — his clothing resembles a Jackson Pollock painting — Bowie takes the design the krewe comes up with for their floats and duplicates it on a much larger scale. That has become more challenging as the floats have become bigger and bigger over the years.
“It means more than just a paycheck to me. That’s why I work the way I work. I’m not going to leave a float till it’s done, period. The way I want it done,” he said.
For Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Mardi Gras comes early. Around 5 a.m. on Fat Tuesday, he gathers with his North Side Skull & Bone Gang at the Backstreet Cultural Museum dressed in skeletonlike costumes. He and others in the gang wear papier-mache heads with horns attached, aprons made from canvas or leather and black underwear or sweats painted to resemble a skeleton.
Their costumes are intended to represent the dead, and Barnes said they bring a serious message, reminding people of their mortality and the need to live a productive and good life. Before the sun rises, they gather to sing, dance, and go door-to-door to wake up the neighborhood. The gang sticks to the back streets of the city, a reminder of the days when black residents could not take part in the official Mardi Gras celebrations, Barnes said.
“We sing and we knock on people’s doors and wake them up. Might not be the most pleasant thing for some folks but hey, it’s Mardi Gras,” he said. “On Mardi Gras day if you don’t want to hear any music, or pageantry or noise, you’re in the wrong town.”