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Uncommonwealth: Richmond woman designs glittery shoes to throw from Mardi Gras float

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 24, 2014 

  • AT A GLANCE

    What is Mardi Gras?

    Mardi Gras literally means Fat Tuesday and refers to the celebrations that peak on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. This year Mardi Gras is March 4. It's a day to eat and party heartily before the more somber asceticism of Lent. Parades in New Orleans, the United States' unofficial capital of Mardi Gras, occur from Feb. 15 - March 4.

    Visit: Mardigrasneworleans.com

    About the Krewe of Muses: Organized in 2000, the group is named after the daughters of Zeus. In Greek mythology, muses were patrons of the arts and sciences, as well as sources of inspiration for artists, poets, philosophers, and musicians.

    The all-female organization of more than 650 is the only one of its kind that rides a parade at night. The Muses are known for their philanthropic efforts as well as a design contest for students in the New Orleans area. The winner rides as a guest of the krewe and his or her design is turned into a cup that's thrown from the float.

    In 2013, the Honorary Muse was Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all white elementary school in the south. This year the Muses parade will include an all female flambeaux troupe, the Glambeaux, carrying torches.

    Source: Kreweofmuses.org

RICHMOND — Karen Neubauer's house is awash in glitter that she buys by the tub.

Neubauer, the director of budgeting, financial planning, and fiscal effectiveness at Eastern Kentucky University, works in a trade that doesn't require glitter.

But this time of year her house is overrun by a very specific sparkly hobby: decorating shoes for a Mardi Gras parade.

She is part of the New Orleans Krewe of Muses, one of the "krewes" around the Louisiana city that parades during the festive season (other examples include Krewe of Bilge, Krewe of Mona Lisa and MoonPie, and Krewe of Chewbaccus).

The shoes created by the Muses Krewe — an all-female group that emphasizes philanthropy — are given out to selected individuals during the parade. The trick is to catch the attention of a member of the Muses Krewe.

Other items they give away include light-up shoe pendants and "gold" bracelets made of tiny stilettos.

But it's the hand-crafted shoes that are the sought-after souvenirs. These are shoes as artwork — glittered inside and out and designed with some amazing handcrafted touches. They are souvenirs fit for display in homes across the country, which is where Neubauer hopes some of her shoes end up.

She has started a Facebook page so that those who get her shoes can send photos of where the shoes are "living" after Mardi Gras. Search on Facebook for Claim Your Muses Shoe.

Neubauer's hobby — which she has been enjoying for eight years — is "a way to balance yourself out after being in the numbers all day."

"I've come up with some of my better shoes this year. It will be hard to give them up," said the New Jersey native, who joined the group when she and her husband lived in New Orleans.

On a recent afternoon, Neubauer set out a group of her shoes on her kitchen table and talked about how shoe-decorating and knitting allow her to be creative, while her day job revolves around making sure the budget numbers all fit together.

One shoe has a heel that is a Hansen's Sno-Bliz cup (in Kentucky these would be called SnoCones), and originally housed a concoction of shaved ice layered with syrup. Another, with a travel theme, features tiny airplanes and a cell phone with a heel made of a slinky. Another is a spot-on design of a Voodoo-flavored potato chip bag made by the Zapp's company and featuring tiny red, green, blue and yellow figures floating on the shoe. Another shoe is coated with plastic eyes.

One shoe, coppery and orange in its glitter, is called "the Hermes shoe" to go with the Muses' 2014 theme, "Ready to wear you out."

Another shoe is a takeoff on a King Cake, the pastries with purple, green and yellow icing that include a tiny plastic baby. Yet another is a tribute to wine, with plastic grapes, a heel made of corks and a glittering pink upper.

Neubauer tries to limit her work on shoes to a few months, but then, she sometimes gets a bit carried away. A simple shoe design might take less than hour, she said, but for more complicated work takes more time.

Each shoe will bear the name "Muses" and the "2014" stamp, so that those who finagle one will be able to accurately date the parade and year at which they caught their "throw."

To prepare for the annual decorating barrage, the shoes must be purchased. Neubauer and a friend bought this year's lot by the pair and then split them up into singles, trying not to spend more than $10 a pair. She prefers to work with shoes that are on the smallish side, around sizes 51/2 to 6 — because size 10 shoes present a lot of real estate to cover.

The glitter job can take several passes, and the shoes receive a final sealing before they are packed in clear gift bags to be passed out during the Muses Krewe Mardi Gras parade, which this year will be at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 27.

Her crop of 2014 shoes includes a high-heeled mule and a platform shoe, but Neubauer likes working on high-heeled platform shoes best, though she sometimes whacks off the heel and replaces it with something more artistic. For example, one shoe features a heel made of stacked Mardi Gras parade doubloons.

"I like the higher heel shoe," Neubauer said. "It gives you a lot of platform to work on, more landscape. I say the higher the heel, the better."

The shoes might in fact be wearable, she said, if they did not have glitter in the footbed and were given out in pairs, rather than as a single coveted Mardi Gras item.

Unlike some other Muses, Neubauer does not have a separate room — or "glitterauge," as it's unofficially known — to work on shoes. She has worked on many of this year's shoes in her family room/kitchen while watching the Winter Olympics.

When she's not decorating shoes, knitting or working, Neubauer is also a runner — her favorite races are mini-marathons — who has challenged herself to run 50 races before she's 50. She just turned 43 and has completed 19 races.

Her husband, EKU men's basketball coach Jeff Neubauer, is from the New Orleans area, and gracefully tolerates the glitter getting into the nooks and crannies of the couple's home during shoe season.

All the sparkle will eventually dissipate, Karen Neubauer said, after a few months.

And if it doesn't, she won't worry.

"There's glitter stuck in the floorboards," Neubauer said, then shrugs. "It'll come up. It's a labor of love."

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman

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