Mardi Gras Mask Maker

Festivals, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on December 31, 2000

Since childhood, 44-year-old Suson Launey has participated in the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Run, an annual village celebration near her hometown of Iota, La. And while she wouldn’t change a thing about this ancient Catholic tradition, she disliked the scratches and scrapes she sustained from the customary wire-frame masks worn by revelers during the festivities.

So she tinkered with convention. Using plastic embroidery screens, Launey discovered she could make disguises as attractive as those worn by centuries of others, without the sharp edges.

“So I became a maskmaker out of sheer preservation of my own face,” Launey says, laughing at the unlikely way she acquired what has become a full-time occupation.

Her soft, colorful masks are still decorated in the old style, using virtually anything at hand. But instead of the broken jewelry, bird feathers, and animal bones her ancestors might have gathered on their farms, Launey “scavenges” at the craft supply section of her local Wal-Mart. She might use a plastic snake for a tongue or shoulder pads for lips.

Like any tradition that evolves to suit its generation, Launey’s improved version was readily accepted by her fellow revelers. She soon began fielding requests and, 17 years later, makes as many as 2,000 Mardi Gras masks every yearmany of which she gives away to people who participate in similar events around southwest Louisiana.

“Suson is an outstanding artist,” says Lisa Abney, director of the Louisiana Folklife Center where Launey’s masks are on display. “Her work is innovative and interesting and illustrates the kind of dedication to the Mardi Gras tradition that folklorists truly like to see.”

Launey’s talents have earned her the title of Master Craftsman Folk Artist in the state of Louisiana. As such, Launey spends much of the year demonstrating her skills and promoting the traditions of Mardi Gras at schools and festivals statewide.

“It upsets me,” she says in her native Cajun drawl, “that so many people think of Mardi Gras as nothing but a big party. It’s gotten a very ugly reputation.”

Mardi Gras celebrates the fullness of life before the sacrifices of Lent begin, Launey explains. Communities observe the occasion in different ways. Tee Mamou, a tiny settlement outside Iota, hosts the Mardi Gras Run, an event which has little to do with the intoxicated revelry of the New Orleans celebration.

“It brings the community together,” Launey says. “It’s about fellowship.”

Men, women, and children gather separately on three different days; there are generally about 150 participants. Dressed in elaborate costumes that completely shroud one’s identity, the celebrants visit about a dozen homes where they sing, dance, and clown around. As the audience focuses on the dancers, some of the more mischievous runners might sneak into the hen house and pretend to “steal” some eggs. Or they might whirl into the fields and start stuffing onion tops into their pockets.

“It’s all in good fun,” Launey says. “Cajun people work very hard, but we like to play hard, too.”

If the homeowners enjoy the performance, they donate food for the community gumbo to be served later than night. They might give sausage, or flour, bell peppers, or onions, maybe garlic or rice.

In addition to the regular runs, the participants recently have added another stop to their agenda: the local nursing home. Here they perform for elderly citizens who can no longer participate themselves.

“They passed it down to us, and now we’re bringing their traditions back to them,” Launey explains. Residents as old as 100 sing along to the familiar songs.

Although anyone is welcome to run, qualified participants must attend meetings and learn the song list. This ensures that all runners understand the local tradition and are not simply looking for a New Orleans-style celebration.

Because the run requires physical stamina, Launey spends several months getting in shape for Mardi Gras. Despite the extra effort, she won’t give up participating in her favorite holiday of the year. “I fully intend to die running Mardi Gras,” she says.