Laura and Ed Moise, lovers of all things Carnival, have teamed up with Daggum Creative to turn a second-floor balcony railing of their Uptown home into a glowing garden of weirdness.
The Moises’ house float of flora and fauna spreads out like a flag held stiff in a breeze. It flies above shrubbery and an extra tall, wrought-iron fence that hides most of the lower level of the house.
The three-dimensional, papier-mache sculpture is best viewed by foot from the sidewalk. During the day, it’s easy to miss by car, but at night, when the floodlights come on, it flashes a science fiction-inspired riff on the classical float designs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Titled “Into the Wilde,” it specifically bows to Jennie Wilde, a mostly unsung designer of floats for parades such as the Mistick Krewe of Comus and the Knights of Momus.
At first glance, the design appears to be an uncomplicated, bucolic “garden scene for the Garden District,” as described by its creators, but a closer look reveals an intent far more ominous.
Four of the flowers represent carnivorous pitcher plants, known for trapping and devouring insects in their trumpet-shaped throats. To lighten the mood, the plants in the installation trap light-fracturing disco balls instead of helpless creatures.
Petals of a coral-spotted corpse flower, so named because the plant smells like rotting flesh, drape over a corner of the railing. The largest flower in the design, it resembles the real thing, a parasite that produces the largest flowers in the world — sometimes as much as 3 feet across. Their putrid smell attracts pollinating carrion flies.
Cascading from the railing is a growth similar in color and shape to the nasty pink of stinkhorns, foul-smelling, tropical fungi. The dangling stalks are fantastical versions of kudzu, the fast-growing invasive vines that blanket much of the southeastern United States.
“It looks like Dr. Seuss came to visit,” joked Moise, a telecom investor.
“We said we didn’t want stuffy and overly formal,” said Laura Moise, a graphic artist.
“Mission accomplished there,” her husband countered.
He’s pleased, of course.
When the couple began brainstorming about the house float, their thoughts immediately turned to Ross Turner, a friend-in-law. Turner, a Master of Fine Arts graduate of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in Texas, married the daughter of friends.
After graduation, Turner’s creative collaboration with classmate Josh Jackson led to the formation of their design business. Daggum Creative’s name refers to a folksy term that expresses frustration and disguises a swear word.
Having corralled their artistic leanings within the boundaries of academia, Turner and Jackson immediately thought of digging into the background of float design. Studying print-making in graduate school, they had learned that researching the subject is the first step in good design.
Their research led to “Mardi Gras Treasures, Float Designs of the Golden Age” written by Henri Schindler. The book contains stunning illustrations of float designs spanning the years of 1870-1930. In it, they discovered the designs of Virginia Wilkinson Wilde, known as Jennie Wilde.
To them, she was the book’s star.
Wilde was an illustrator, muralist, art teacher and friend of New Orleans writer Grace King, but it was her designs of Comus floats that brought some acclaim, Schindler writes. In her first float designed for Comus, the king sat above a “swarm of butterflies, seated inside an enormous morning glory.”
Pansies, laurels, lilies and chrysanthemums were her calling card for two decades, Schindler said, along with “landscapes of gilded trees and fiery clouds, bowers of gigantic flora and streams of molten gold.”
Turner and Jackson recycled Wilde’s images of the natural world in their garden project but twisted them with dabs of reality. They juxtaposed fragrant spring flowers and those that stink, invade and kill.
While Wilde was influenced by master works of painting and literature, drawing extravagant illustrations in the art nouveau style of the period, Turner and Jackson were influenced by science fiction and dystopian thrillers such as “The Happening,” a film about mysterious mass suicides. Both created outdoor public displays, but Turner and Jackson’s style reflects the popular culture of their generation.
Today, Wilde would be publicly celebrated, even allowed to participate in parades, but in her own time, her gender limited recognition, Turner said. The Moises’ house float bears Wilde’s name, he said, to give her the wider recognition she deserves.
This house float was their first, so after the research and drawings were done, Turner and Jackson sought advice from an experienced float designer about how to make traditional, long-lasting papier-mache that could hold up outside for several weeks. They consulted with a Sherwin-Williams paint representative about various latex paints and the perfect shade of blue.
They also gathered masses of heavy paper, cardboard, glue, fabric and zip ties for the construction. Jackson shaved wine bottle corks to points to create thorns for the vines.
At one point, the flowers and vines hung to dry inside the designers’ houses from clotheslines attached to cabinet handles, window ledges and stairwell railings, any protrusion that could secure a line. Installation took several days of traipsing through the Moises’ upstairs bedroom, often until 8:30 p.m.
When a wind-driven storm came through a week after installation was complete, some of the work had to be redone. They prepared for bad weather, but “we underestimated it,” Turner said.
Together, they worked out the problems just as they had in graduate school, where they learned that they were a good team. They banter like a comedy team. When one starts a subject, the other expands it with more detail. They do the same in art.
When they did the Moise project, they found themselves constructing each other’s drawings, Turner said, a creative accident they plan to continue in future work.
The construction phase of the project gave Jackson an even greater appreciation of Wilde’s elaborate creations. “She had to make everything from scratch,” he said. “I could get online and order more disco balls right now.”
As for the future, Laura Moise said “Into the Wilde” comes down Ash Wednesday, but 2023 will bring an expanded house float. “They have ideas,” she said. “It could involve some motors.”