Strange and wonderful creatures populate the hallway outside artist Katrina Brees’ studio in the Bywater Art Lofts.
“We just finished the nutria,” Brees said one recent day, pointing to a three-wheeled bike bearing a giant, pointy rodent head and tail. It was one of an array of exotic wheeled species that Brees and cohorts engineered for street travel for use by the Krewe of AWE in Saturday’s Tucks parade.
In her 12 years in New Orleans, the Boston transplant has embraced all things NOLA and launched a few, too, including the all-female, all-inclusive Bearded Oysters (her title is Mother Shucker) and the parade performance troupe Krewe of Kolossos.
Her latest endeavor, I Heart Louisiana, creates local throws for Carnival krewes.
“I’d never been to New Orleans, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be from the popular media,” said Brees, who arrived here pre-Katrina with a musician friend on the band’s tour bus. (Her current name was chosen post-hurricane.) “New Orleans was a revelation. It was like discovering something new every day.”
Her first foray into the city’s costume mentality came with an invitation to the MoMS Ball. She came up with a bead-bedecked Mardi Bra for the occasion; since then, she has trademarked the cone-shaped, bead-adorned apparel.
“People wanted them at once. It was like a feeding frenzy,” she said.
But for an artist who calls her wearables “trashion” — for the found objects she incorporates into her eco-clothing — the whole concept of plastic beads soon became an issue.
So in 2012, she called a gathering of friends and interested parties to a Greening the Gras Conference and began brainstorming ways to make Carnival throws eco-friendly and local. Not everyone readily jumped on the bandwagon.
“There was a guy from City Hall there, and he said everyone was afraid it would all be macaroni necklaces,” Brees said with a laugh.
It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination. Brees’ I Heart Louisiana purveys an array of imaginative necklaces, magnets, rings, snacks and the like, all made by regional artists and culinary companies.
“The first thing we came up with were snacks,” Brees said. “Food is a deeply cultural thing here, and the state is filled with food manufacturers.”
So I Heart Louisiana began offering small, tossable packets of PJ’s coffee, Aunt Sally’s pralines, Elmer’s candy and Zydeco bars.
“In fact, we originally were going to be A Taste of Louisiana and offer just food,” she said. “But we realized that we needed a place for more than just food — a place where any artisan objects could be turned into throws.”
As a creative type herself, Brees knew that artists often don’t make the best manufacturers and “we would need to assist artists with production.”
At first, she and her crew thought they’d need to make throws for 50 cents apiece or less to attract buyers. But when they began interviewing riders, they discovered that those who spend more than $1,000 on throws generally fork out the most for products that cost between $1 and $20 per item.
“Society seems to think throws are cheap, but $1 billion is spent annually on Mardi Gras beads,” Brees said.
Some riders want alternatives to beads to be, well, beads. For them, I Heart Louisiana offers necklaces adorned with the NOLA water meter symbol or krewe logos. A chain holding an oyster shell adorned with a real pearl runs $4.
The company’s first customer was the Krewe of Boo, and Brees spent an inordinate amount of time making samples to show them.
“We put almost 100 items in front of the Krewe of Boo before we found ones that they like,” Brees said. The most important consideration isn’t price but heft — no one wants to toss paper to the crowds.
“And there’s always what we call the ‘crow brain’ — whatever shiny object that makes you turn your head and covet it, whether glittered or blinky lights.”
Riders also gravitate to things small enough to store in limited float space and anything that carries the krewe name on it. For the Krewe of Freret this year, I Heart Louisiana made 1,000 medallion necklaces of recycled clay with the krewe logo on them.
Those items are often made craft-style and in-house. Brees has looked into turning a local warehouse into a factory for throw-manufacturing, but she admits that “all that aluminum wasn’t as cute as I thought.”
In fact, mass production isn’t that appealing to an artist who would rather spend hours creating giant papier-mâché creatures.
“I Heart Louisiana wasn’t created to make money as much as to solve a problem that was hurting me as an artist,” Brees said. This year, the company didn’t solicit business but had all it could handle. Still, the I Heart Louisiana founder realizes that it’s important to push the movement forward.
“I really want to be the voice for it. I want people to rethink the throw,” she said.
As an artist, Brees gets excited about the creative end of Carnival throw design.
“I want to be the Mignon Faget of Mardi Gras throws,” she said with a laugh. “I’d love to get to design things that are meaningful to New Orleanians, something that ends up in your jewelry box and not a landfill.”