“Bal Masque: Caroline Thomas,” Art Academy of Cincinnati

October 8th, 2016  |  Published in *, Early Fall 2016

Caroline Thomas, “Ostara”, mixed mediums

As you enter the drab lobby of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, you can see Caroline Thomas’s over-the-top headpieces in her exhibition, “Bal Masque.” I was immediately seduced and quickly scrawled my name to sign into the building.

Inspired by Mardi Gras costumes, regalia, and float design and construction, Thomas’s pieces are dazzling. Although they are displayed on static mannequin heads, you can imagine them being worn by parade participants “dancing and shimmying down a New Orleans street,” Thomas notes. The components “bounce, sway, shimmer, and even make percussive noise.” 1 and 2

A Baton Rouge-native, Thomas has a BFA in painting from the Art Academy. In 2008 as a graduating senior, she received the Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Scholarship and journeyed to Trinidad for Carnival. The island, the largest in the West Indies and only 11 km from the northeastern coast of Venezuela, has an international reputation for costume craft. There she was particularly taken by the elaborate feather headdresses.

After graduation Thomas debated returning to Louisiana. She took recurring anxiety dreams about Mardi Gras as a sign to make the move.3 When a job was posted about working on Mardi Gras floats for the Krewe4 of Hermes, 5 “It all fell into place for me. I had a job lined up, and my dreams were telling me to go,” Thomas said in a 2016 interview by Kelley Crawford for NolaVie.6

Thomas currently works for Royal Artists, designing and painting floats for the Krewe of Proteus.7 and 8 Thomas has also worked on floats for the Krewe d’Etat, Chaos, and occasionally floats for the Mystics of Time and the Conde Cavaliers for the Mobile, AL, parade,which might be considered the precursor of the Crescent City’s parade.9

There isn’t only one Mardi Gras parade. Instead individual krewesput on elaborate themed parades that follow various different routes. The parades start in January and build up to Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. In 2017 approximately 75 krewes will march, starting on January 6 and climaxing with eight parades on Mardi Gras, February 28.

Thomas is a founding member of the Carnival Collective of former and current carnival artists, dedicated to “promot(ing) and educat(ing) the public about the craft, care, and commitment that make Mardi Gras possible.”10 It seeks to preserve, promote, and advance the tradition(s) and folk art expressions of what’s considered the Golden Age of Carnival, the late 19th century.11

Helping to bring this art to the public is Angee Jackson, the owner of Miette in New Orleans. She presents flowers from floats in her “fairytale setting boutique.” Thomas explains, “I think sometimes the floats go by so fast and it’s such a chaotic time . . . people aren’t necessarily aware of some of the really incredible artwork that’s on the floats.”Thomas continues, “Sometimes taking a little chunk of that float and putting it on the wall where you actually have to stop and stare at and really think about that human hands put this together, I think it’s a nice opportunity to start that dialogue.” 12

Caroline Thomas, “Siren”, mixed mediums

Thomas’s Siren tempts you to come closer, just like the haunting music of the Greek Sirens13 lured sailors to shipwreck on their island. Mounted on a headpiece of intersecting bands of pearls (what else would it be adorned with given the Sirens’ natural habitat?), the artist’s fantastical aquatic crown of wavering seaweed, sea anemones, shells, and coral in an undersea palette of greens and blues is made with paper and papier mâche, the same materials as those used on the floats. Two shells, each dripping pearls, cover her ears like earphones, perhaps a reference to conch shells that simulate the sounds of the sea. Siren gleams with a subtle sparkle, one that would be intensified as the wearer moved down the street.

Caroline Thomas, “Nix”, mixed mediums

A stunning black-and-gold piece is titled Nix, which likely refers to Nyx14, the Greek Goddess of the Night who was a beautiful and powerful prophetess. A veil of fringe obscures the wearer’s face and extends to cover the torso. The headpiece itself features a nosegay of gilt-edged black magnolias with golden gynoecia.15 Behind this bouquet is an Art Deco-ish stepped element with a crocodile-skin-stamped surface design. You can think of it as a screen or (for me) a scaled-down architectural decoration like that found in Orchids at the Palm Court of the Netherland Plaza. An arrow-shaped “pendant” adorns the central section. Behind this is a “fan” of pheasant feathers backed by a few black ostrich plumes and some glossy black feathers that gracefully curve downward. The headdress is fit for the queen of the night.

Also on view are a number of Thomas’s drawings for her designs for the Krewe of Proteus floats. They are illustrations of finished floats, not working sketches. They convey the whimsical quality of the actual floats, but, of course, none of their energy. You can see some completed floats on her website: carolinemthomas.com.

It’s not a large show, but is a captivating one. I’m unlikely to travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but Thomas gives me a sense of what I’m missing.

–Karen S. Chambers

“Bal Masque: Caroline Thomas,” Art Academy of Cincinnati, 1212 Jackson St., Cincinnati  45202; 513-562-6262, fax: 513-562-8778; www.artacademy.edu. Closed.

 

NOTES

1 “Bal Masque: Caroline Thomas” wall text, Art Academy of Cincinnati.

 

2 I’m reminded of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, which are animated by dancers. Cave is also a natural comparison because of the sheer exuberance of his works. But where Thomas is primarily inspired by Mardi Gras, Cave’s piece are a synthesis of African ceremonial garments, Cockney Pearly King and Queen suits, country-western singers, Haitian voodoo flags, haute couture, Liberace, Mexican mariachi signers, Native American garb, Christian priestly vestments, Tibetan textiles as well as, a bit closer to Thomas’s inspirations, Venetian masques, Brazilian carnival costumes, and Mardi Gras Indians. But where Thomas keeps to the traditional materials and construction techniques of Mardi Gras floats and costumes, Cave’s pieces are a conglomeration of “thrift shop sweaters, floppy hats, braided rugs, crocheted potholders, doilies, toys, spinning tops, bric-à-brac, buttons, tin flowers, long neon-colored human hair – and much more – remember one man’s trash is another man’s treasure – and then he adds embroidery, beading, buttons, sequins, mirrors, and on and on,” as I wrote about his exhibition “Meet Me at the Center of the Earth” at the Cincinnati Art Museum for The Enquirer in February 2012.

 

3  “There were dreams where it was Mardi Gras, and I couldn’t get to the parade. They were all these anxiety dreams where I couldn’t find my keys or I didn’t know the location, and those dreams were crazy symbolic for me. Right then I knew it was a sign.” Kelley Crawford, “Artists in Their Own Words: Caroline Thomas,” NolaVie, February 12, 2016.

 

4 Probably an archaic affectation, “krewes” (pronounced “crews”) are membership organizations that put on Mardi Gras parades and/or masque bals. The word is primarily associated with the Carnival season in New Orleans. “Krewe,” Wikipedia.

 

5 “Hermes is a Greek god, the god of transitions and boundaries. He is described as quick and cunning, moving freely between the worlds of the mortal and divine. He is also portrayed as an emissary and messenger of the gods; an intercessor between mortals and the divine, and conductor of souls into the afterlife. He has been viewed as the protector and patron of herdsmen, thieves, oratory, and wit, literature and poetry, athletics and sports, invention and trade, roads, boundaries, and travelers.” “Hermes.”Wikipedia.

 

6 Crawford, op cit.

 

7 “In Greek mythology, Proteus is an early sea-god or god of rivers and oceanic bodies of water, one of several deities whom Homer calls the “Old Man of the Sea.” Some who ascribe to him a specific domain call him the god of “elusive sea change,” which suggests the constantly changing nature of the sea or the liquid quality of water in general.” “Proteus,” Wikipedia.

 

8 The Krewe of Proteus was founded in 1882, making it the second oldest krewe. The first was the Mistick Krewe of Comus (Greek god of festivity, revels, and nocturnal dalliances), which first marched in 1857, beginning the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade tradition. “Krewe of Proteus,” Wikipedia.

 

9 “Mistick Krewe of Comus,” Wikipedia.

 

10 “Bal Masque: Caroline Thomas” press release.

 

11 Wall text, op. cit.

 

12 Meghan Kluth, “How to bring a piece of the Mardi Gras float home with you,” WGNO, November 30, 2015.

 

13 “In Greek mythology, the Sirens . . . were dangerous yet beautiful creatures, portrayed as femmes fatales who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.” “Siren,” Wikipedia.

 

14 “Nyx . . . is the Greek goddess (or personification) of the night. A shadowy figure, Nyx stood at or near the beginning of creation and mothered other personified deities such as Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death), with Erebus (Darkness). Her appearances are sparse in surviving mythology, but reveal her as a figure of such exceptional power and beauty that she is feared by Zeus himself.” “Nyx,” Wikipedia.

 

15 “Gynoecium . . . is most commonly used as a collective term for the parts of a flower that produce ovules and ultimately develop into the fruit and seeds. The gynoecium is the innermost whorl of (one or more) pistils in a flower and is typically surrounded by the pollen-producing reproductive organs, the stamens, collectively called the androecium.” “Gynoecium,”Wikipedia.

 

 

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