"Just because there's no festival doesn't mean the world can't look festive!" Jazz Fest sign artist, Nan Parati, teams up with one of the city's savviest retailers, Lauren Haydel.
- story by Reda Wigle
- photos by Nina Cameron
As the principal penman for Jazz Fest, sign writer Nan Parati has spent the past thirty-five years making her mark on music. Her signature script, which has spelled out everything from performer’s names to No Parking warnings, has become synonymous with America’s preeminent music festival.
Parati’s signs have even inspired a new generation of musicians to take up the mantle. One even told her that he went into music because he wanted his name on a Jazz Fest sign - that desire had been his "guiding light."
With this year’s festival cancelled on account of CO-VID 19, Parati has shifted to creating custom signs for fans, locals, and music lovers.
“After they canceled Jazz Fest I wrote on Facebook, ‘just because there’s no festival doesn’t mean the world can’t look festive.’ I posted some of my signs and I started getting orders,” said Parati.
One of those orders came courtesy of Lauren Haydel, owner of local boutique chain. When Haydel came to collect her sign the two women hit it off and a plan was born.
“It brought me so much joy to see my sign and meet Nan," said Haydel. "I got home, put my sign up in the window and came up with the idea to share it with other people so they could have the same kind of memento, a piece of Jazz Fest history."
Haydel now sells and distributes Parati’s signs through the Fleurty Girl website. Haydel and Parati began with the modest sales goal of 100 signs. In just two weeks the pair sold over 700.
“I start writing at 7am. I write outside and make signs like crazy until 8 at night, until I can’t see at all.” Ever a servant of her art, Parati has found a way to add flare to her pieces and hours to her evenings. “I started cutting out stars by hand to decorate the signs, and people want them. After 8, I sit down and cut out stars until midnight and then I go to sleep and I do it all over again.”
With a heavy handmade workload and nary a masseuse operating in the quarantined city, Parati remedies her aches and pains with fish oil and turmeric. No stranger to high volume, Parati typically makes around 3,000 signs for Jazz Fest, among them a safety warning that became a hot collector’s item.
Parati said that “A few years ago Jazz Fest's insurance company worried that people might fall into the ditches that surround the infield, so they asked the art department to make signs for the barricades that read, ‘Stay Clear of Ditches.’
"It didn't take the general public but four minutes to convert the D to a B. I've since seen the altered phrase on homemade flags, t-shirts, bags, all kinds of stuff. And now, people want it on their Jazz Festing in Place signs.”
Parati is as much a fan of Jazz Fest as she is an integral part of its aesthetic. Having attended every year for the past three and a half decades, Parati cites 2006 as a banner year for the festival.
“That year after Katrina, every band, every singer was full of the loss, the love, the healing. The two standouts for me were John Boutte singing Leonard Cohen's ‘Hallelujah’ and Bruce Springsteen's whole Seeger Sessions set.” This year’s Jazz Festing In Place provided Parati the soundtrack to her sign making. “I was listening to WWOZ all day, everyday, when they were doing it.”
Haydel also mixed business with leisure to the tune of WWOZ, “I had people pick their signs up on my front porch while I was Festing In Place. I got to see their faces light up and hear a lot of stories.”
Haydel featured some of those stories in an Instagram series, called, fittingly, #festsignstories. Selling the work of local makers from her porch is a return to form for Haydel who launched Fleurty Girl from her Oak Street home in 2009. In addition to local delivery and front porch pickup, Haydel has shipped Parati’s signs to customers across the country.
The popularity of the pieces has proved to be a blessing for Haydel and the Fleurty Girl family, “We started getting sign orders, it started taking off and I was able to bring people back to work. It’s trickled into this wonderful, beautiful thing.”
Another beautiful offshoot of the collaboration? Parati’s pieces are being recognized for the original works of art they are.
“A lot of people ask me to sign the signs which I think is really sweet,” she said. The recognition has been fun for Parati who began her career as a store sign writer in the 1980s for Whole Food Company, the local grocery that helped inspire the national chain Whole Foods Market.
“I want everyone to know, If you stick to something for thirty-five years, it will pay off.”
Part of that pay incudes Parati’s own Cajun coronation: “I write really, really fast. Several years ago this old Cajun guy was standing watching me make signs for the longest time. He finally turned to his friend and said, ‘this is a sign making motherfucker,” Parati remembered with a laugh. “That’s what he said, and that’s what I am.”
And pandemic be damned, that’s what she’ll stay.
Custom signs by Nan Parati can be ordered on the Fleurty Girl website. In addition to being a sign writer, Parati is also an award-winning writer/writer, and a regular columnist for French Quarter Journal. Click here to read past columns in her "Passing a Good Time" series.
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