Maker of Iconic Fest Signs Keeps Busy During Pandemic

Photo by Rich Collins

NEW ORLEANS – The artist responsible for Jazz Fest’s iconic handmade signs has had a busy spring despite the fest being cancelled for the first time in its history.

As usual, Nan Parati has been spending her days hand-lettering colorful signs on corrugated “plastic cardboard” sheets. Only this time, she’s not creating functional art to guide music lovers through the annual gathering at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. Instead, she’s filling custom orders for people who want to bring the spirit of New Orleans home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parati, who has been working for Jazz Fest since 1985, moved from New Orleans to a small town in Massachusetts after Hurricane Katrina, but she returns every year like clockwork to contribute her designs – and signs – to the proceedings.

Parati was working on a new backdrop for the Food Heritage Stage with her longtime art department collaborator Bill Darrow on March 17 when she heard the news that the fest would be postponed. A few weeks later, when it was announced that Jazz Fest would be cancelled altogether, Parati was following stay-at-home orders by nesting at her friend Tracy Keller’s Uptown house.

“When they postponed it I thought, ‘Okay, this is interesting,’” said Parati. “But then when they canceled it, that made me cry – and I don’t cry very often. … I wasn’t really sure what to do. I realized I would have to drive through 13 states to get back to Massachusetts so I wanted to stay here for a little while and just see what was going to happen.

“My friend Tracy is extremely generous to let me stay with her. All of a sudden I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m here for a really long time. All day, everyday … how’s that?’”

When Parati realized her festival work was disappearing, she offered her services via a Facebook post.

“I said that just because the festival is canceled doesn’t mean it can’t look like a festival around here,” she said. “If you’d like a sign to make your house look festive, send me an email and we will carry on. That caught a little traction.”

Parati said a turning point was when she completed an order for Lauren Haydel, the owner of the Fleurty Girl boutiques.

“That’s when everything went crazy,” she said. “Lauren called me the next day and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing,’ and then her voice changed and she was like, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re doing. … ‘I’m going to take orders. You’re going to make the signs. I’ll come pick them up every day and mail them out.’ I said okay. She is such an amazing marketer. She really got the word out there.”

Under normal circumstances, Parati estimates that she hand-letters more than 3,000 signs for Jazz Fest over the course of a month. She said that because of the Fleurty Girl orders this year, she’s almost keeping up with her normal pace. She made more than 1,000 signs in two weeks and is still at it. Her new work space is Keller’s raised front porch. Her companion is Juno, Keller’s enormously sweet (and just plain enormous) husky.

Fest fans are ordering signs to commemorate the year that Jazz Fest wasn’t. They’re making signs for their own events (“Porch Stage,” “Driveway Stage,” even the “Toddler Stage”). One customer asked his girlfriend to marry him via a Parati sign. WWOZ Radio commissioned a bunch of them for a special on-air promotion. The handmade works of art have been mailed all over New Orleans and far beyond the city walls.

Parati said she had to work overtime to keep up with the rush.

“Between the first day and last day of what would have been Jazz Fest,  I was making almost a hundred a day,” she said. “These signs have a lot of detail to them, multiple fonts, and I started decorating them with these little vinyl stars, which was fine when I didn’t have that many to do. Then all of a sudden I was starting at 6 a.m. on the porch writing signs until 8 p.m. at night and then I’d go in and cut out little stars until midnight for the next day. I did that for 11 days straight so that was crazy. I was really tired but I wasn’t complaining; I was happy.”

Now, the collaboration with Fleurty Girl is moving beyond two-dimensional objects. Parati illustrated a shirt that says “Six Feet Y’all” and more designs may be on the way.

With all the new business possibilities, it’s good that Parati got serious a few years ago and copyrighted her fonts. The loopy one is called, simply, “Parati Script.” She dubbed the blockier one “Fun Times Roman.” Protecting the designs became a necessity.

“People are starting to copy them,” she said. “And it’s very nice that people like my style that much. … But I also don’t want them copying my style because it’s what I do. I never realized how much people were paying attention to the signs although I always joke that I’m the most collected unknown artist in the world.”

Categories: Dining/Entertainment, Festivals, Today’s Business News