Mardi Gras!

[If reading this by email, please tap the title at the top to open your browser for the best experience.]


The season has arrived, along with its festivities: the parades, good food and drinks, and parties in the streets. In these weeks between the feast of the Epiphany (always the first day after the 12th Day of Christmas), and the day before Ash Wednesday, a good bit of south Louisiana and nearby areas of the Gulf Coast (such as Mobile, AL) celebrate this happy carnival season of Mardi Gras.

The French words, Mardi Gras, literally mean ‘Fat Tuesday,’ the culminating day of these weeks of fun. But Mardi Gras as a title tends to be applied to the course of several weeks during which the parades occur, but also when formal balls and other social events are scheduled. And though these events are enjoyed and appreciated by folks who live in and around places like New Orleans, the schools close for a long weekend and many head off for skiing vacations out West. While the Crescent City, its streets, and hotels, are filled with visitors from equally distant places, often from the North.

Three main colors associated with Mardi Gras are much evident in float and parade costumes, home and business decorations, and especially in the profusion of plastic beads seen and thrown everywhere. They are gold, green, and purple. I am convinced that the source of these three colors derives from the broader, church-based, liturgical observances during and on either side of these weeks. Traditionally, on the feast of the Epiphany, inaugurating this season, liturgical churches such as Roman Catholic and Episcopal use gold for vestments and altar coverings. This seems likely due to the symbolism of the gold gift(s) presented to the newborn King upon the visit of the Magi (or ‘Wise Men’).

On most Sundays following the Epiphany during these weeks, the traditional color for vestments and altar fabrics is green, perhaps because these Sundays are usually described as occurring during “Ordinary Time,” the same practice that happens during summer Sundays. The third color, purple, I think derives from the traditional color for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, which directly follow Mardi Gras.

Not so long ago the radio waves were filled songs like, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” songs evoking images of Christmas lights and trees, and snowy landscapes. Though surely to a different tune, and accompanied by very different imagery, the same words could well be sung here now in south Louisiana!

PS: I should have included King Cakes in the first published version of this blog.

During this Mardi Gras season, King Cakes are ubiquitous, especially in workplaces and offices, in teachers’ lounges and similar contexts, and at so many party gatherings. Note the presence of the frosting and beads in the three colors noted above, as well as the gold coins. Most commonly, these cakes have baked into them a little baby, of course symbolic of the one the Epiphany Magi came to worship, who would be proclaimed as King.

New Orleans as Viewed by Errol Barron


Through our nearby family we are able to stay some weekends in New Orleans, an opportunity which delights us given that we live up in ‘the country.’ Our son and his family reside in what is called the “Irish Channel,” an historic neighborhood close to the Mississippi River and on high ground that did not flood during Katrina. Like much of New Orleans, that neighborhood is filled with old houses, some in excellent condition and others looking blighted by years of hot and wet weather.

While visiting our family there, we became acquainted with a very unique New Orleans local bookstore, The Garden District Book Shop, located incongruously in what seems to have been a former roller skate facility. The building now houses this book seller, as well as a coffee house and other vendors. It was here that we discovered Errol Barron’s remarkable and yet relatively small book featured in the image above.

Having once aspired to be an architect, having a longterm interest in architectural history, and having dabbled in watercolor painting, Errol Barron’s work immediately captured my attention. For this is a beautiful book, filled with color illustrations, and very affordable. The images in the book are the fruit of a sabbatical that he took in 2009, while most often visiting the sites for his paintings by bike.

 The author at a book signing event

Barron, as a career-long faculty member of the Architecture department of Tulane University, knows well the field that provides the material for his watercolor paintings, and also the substance of the profession and vocation he has pursued. Underlying all his work is the evident hand of a highly skilled draftsman, in both the historic sense of someone who draws well, and in the more formal sense of someone who is well-prepared to render architectural plans. His attention to scale and proportion, especially with regard to building facades, is particularly evident.

Through his dedication to his life’s work, Barron has nurtured generations of students. His beautiful as well as informative illustrations help us appreciate why this has been so. He has a sharp eye for what to notice, as well as a developed skill with which to communicate what he sees.

My regret here is that, in commending his beautiful work, I need to rely upon photos I have taken of his printed book. So why isn’t this book available in digital download book format, especially for the sake of its many compelling images?

Below is one image that is available on the internet, which for me captures part of the mystery of the appeal of New Orleans. Barron’s book’s subtitle says a lot – “drawings and observations of America’s most foreign city.” An aspect of the curious beauty of much of New Orleans is the juxtaposition of well-cared-for historic homes with attractive landscaping, and properties where the wear and tear of time is unavoidably evident. The latter clearly sets apart the former, and the former so often has a visually compelling character.

Having acknowledged the limitations of some of these images, I offer here a few that I have photographed from the paperback version of the book. Note how the book cover (depicted above, with an evident visual seam down the middle) reflects a similar use of a split photographic image of two pages within the book.

Barron’s sketches and watercolor paintings help us appreciate how there are at least four significant cultural influences that have contributed to the historical life of Louisiana and what might be called the ‘gumbo’ of its architecture: Spanish, French, English, as well as African, the latter of which is more likely evident in landscape (and culinary) selections. For it is thought that some of those transported here in slavery from Africa may have brought seeds of certain plants with them. Predictably, some of the above-mentioned cultural influences are more visually evident than others.

Below is an image of Barron’s rendering of the St Charles streetcar, an iconic image.

For me, Errol Barron’s book, New Orleans Observed, is a beautiful discovery that provides ample inspiration.


My thanks to my son, Anders, and his family, for the lead on this posting. Through visits with them I have come to love New Orleans despite its problems and or challenges. I want to note that I have no personal relationship with Errol Barron nor any commercial relationship with the publication of his remarkable work.