Beads color world

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Artist Stephan Wanger places adhesive on a mural at Mardi Gras World to hold beads in place.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Artist Stephan Wanger places adhesive on a mural at Mardi Gras World to hold beads in place.

Mardi Gras parades are infamous for, among many things, the piles of unwanted plastic beads they leave in their wake. While many might be quick to dismiss the gaudy neckwear as fool’s gold, one man has proven such “trash” can be turned into cultural treasures.

For more than five years, artist Stephan Wanger has been partnering with volunteers from communities throughout the state — including more than 3,000 children ranging in grade from kindergarten to 12th — to construct Louisiana-themed mosaics out of otherwise unwanted Mardi Gras beads.

Today there are more than 60 collaborative and solo-made bead mosaics composing the ever-growing collection called “Bead Town,” on display at Mardi Gras World through Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13.

As one of the main goals of Bead Town is to promote community, there is also an interactive piece, the 42-by-8-foot “Paragons of New Orleans” mosaic, under construction at Mardi Gras World.

Wanger is working with — and still looking for — volunteers to help complete the mural, which depicts the New Orleans skyline under an indigo firmament, by Feb. 13.

Volunteers are invited to join the artistic process by cutting strands of Mardi Gras necklaces apart into individual beads or by lending hands to glue, one at a time, the plastic pearls to the canvas.

Other already-completed Bead Town murals on display with the collection feature familiar sights such as the Louisiana state flag, a map of the Broadmoor neighborhood, a crawfish boil, and LSU; the massive “Sanctuary of Alegria” mural offers a view of New Orleans as seen from across the river.

Wanger is from a coastal German town near Hamburg called Wilhelmshaven but has resided in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

He said his background contributes to why he cares so deeply about the success of the Bead Town project as a whole.

“It’s hard to grow up as a German because you always hear that the Allies and a lot of countries were discussing that Germany was not worth being rebuilt (after World War II). So when you grow up as a youth, in the ’70s, and people keep talking about it … you can’t comprehend it.”

“When Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the southern region of Louisiana, some people raised the question is it actually worth it, rebuilding southern Louisiana and New Orleans, and of course it’s worth rebuilding. But people talked about it, and I thought about the children who now had to listen to all of that.”

Wanger emphasized that Bead Town is also meant to serve a number of very practical purposes.

“It’s educational, because the children learn about the region and so wherever it travels, they see what Louisiana is all about. Then what is amazing is it’s about recycling so children or the youth, or community, everybody’s learning what to do with recycled materials. Then it’s promoting New Orleans and Louisiana, so it’s a tourism engine,” Wanger said.

Barry Kern, president and CEO of Mardi Gras World, said, “I think that’s what’s great about this is … on a lot of different levels we never had anything where the tourists can actually become part of it.”

“Tour groups of Mardi Gras World may stop by and place beads on it or cut beads, and it’s what Bead Town is all about,” Wanger said.

“Paragons of New Orleans” is not just drawing attention to Bead Town’s charitable efforts, however; the project might break a Guinness World Record.

The current record for “Largest Bead Mosaic” is held by Bead Town’s own “Sanctuary of Alegria” mural, completed in 2012.

Wanger noted one of the key purposes of Bead Town is to promote recycling and said, “Every year, over 10,000 tons of these beads will wind up in landfills.”

“I started recycling and showing people how to recycle these beads and what they can do with them and it has grown into this incredible, mind-boggling, humbling community effort,” he said.

In line with its community-oriented mission, Bead Town has been entered in the Super Service Challenge, a contest sponsored by the Brees Dream Foundation and Companies with a Mission with the goal of encouraging service among individuals in the workplace.

More than 250 entries are competing for Super Service Challenge wins and the accompanying cash donations, ranging from $2,000 to $25,000, to benefit the various charities served by the entrants.

A win for Bead Town, for example, would benefit six organizations including Arc of Greater New Orleans, St. Michael Special School, Andrew H. Wilson Charter School, and Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy.

“New Orleans is a great story of rebirth and how people in the city … pulled together to revitalize the city after Katrina and we want to honor that,” said Mitch Davis, executive director of Companies With a Mission, on hand at Mardi Gras World last week to represent his organization during a Bead Town volunteer drive.

Public voting for the Super Service Challenge is open on the Companies With a Mission website until Friday.

Top challenge winners will be announced by Drew Brees on Jan. 30.

Leigh Ann Stuart is a contributing writer. She can be reached at leigh.a.stuart@gmail.com.