What does an 87-year-old nun have to do with Mardi Gras? Plenty, if her name happens to be Sister Olivia Wassmer, O.S.C.
In her workshop at the St. Clare's Monastery on Magazine Street at Henry Clay Avenue, Sister Olivia creates miniature wooden replicas of Mardi Gras floats.
Originally from Indiana, Sister Olivia has lived in New Orleans since 1970. The work she does — transforming pieces of balsa wood into tiny works of art — has kept shoppers returning to the monastery's small gift shop, where her New Orleans-themed and Mardi Gras ornaments are for sale.
Among her many non-Carnival items are Galatoire’s, a Lucky Dog cart, the steamboat Natchez, Café du Monde, the Cabildo, a streetcar and St. Louis Cathedral (her biggest seller).
She explained, “Many of the Poor Clare nuns, whose order has been present in the city since 1885, turn their God-given gifts of creativity and talent into gifts that support their mission by raising money for the monastery.”
Her series of Carnival ornaments includes a Muses shoe and signature floats from Rex, Comus, Proteus, Hermes, Saturn and Thoth. The last is a favorite of the sisters, since that parade passes right in front of the monastery.
"That's our Rex," Sister Olivia said with a smile. (She confessed that the nuns often wear their veils to the parade because they catch more throws that way.)
Her design process begins with a photograph, which she takes herself. She then sketches out the subject in a precise pencil drawing. Next, the image is reduced in size and duplicated.
The monastery's old printing press used to do the job, but now her computer and printer handle the chore instead. The paper float images are transferred to thin sheets of wood and painted delicately by hand, with all sorts of colors and dabs of gold and silver leaf added.
"I actually work best at night," she explained, adding that the hours between 7 and 11 p.m. are prime time for her. "I wear my headphones and listen to murder mysteries on tape while I paint," she said with a wink.
Ornaments aren't the only pieces of art Sister Olivia creates. She also works on tiny miniature paintings of New Orleans. In addition, she has served as the convent’s organist, and she ran the print shop, where she created a book called "Sketches of New Orleans" that she wrote, drew, printed and bound all by herself.
Her work earned Sister Olivia international acclaim when a Frommer's travel guide writer called her ornaments one of the city's best souvenirs. She has customers from New Zealand, British Columbia and all across the U.S.
Another sign of her ornaments' popularity is the high price they've fetched in recent years at WYES-TV auctions, where a complete set can go for several hundred dollars.
"The highest compliment I received was from the lady who wrote that she took the complete set of my ornaments with her when they evacuated for Katrina," Sister Olivia said.
A complete set of Sister Olivia’s ornaments totals more than four dozen. Her New Orleans ornament for 2018 is Brocato’s ice cream parlor.
Email Arthur Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org.