Bead art exhibit highlights history

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Artist Stephan Wanger takes a break from installing his Mardi Gras bead mosaics and rests near  his 30-foot-by-8-foot bead mosaic of the New Orleans skyline, one of his pieces featured in the upcoming Bead Town exhibit at the Old City Hall in Denham Springs. The show begins Friday and ends June 16. The exhibit opening is at 6:30 p.m. Friday at 115 Mattie St., Denham Springs.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Artist Stephan Wanger takes a break from installing his Mardi Gras bead mosaics and rests near his 30-foot-by-8-foot bead mosaic of the New Orleans skyline, one of his pieces featured in the upcoming Bead Town exhibit at the Old City Hall in Denham Springs. The show begins Friday and ends June 16. The exhibit opening is at 6:30 p.m. Friday at 115 Mattie St., Denham Springs.

Thirty years of Mardi Gras history will be unveiled at 6:30 p.m. Friday during a grand opening of the traveling Bead Town exhibit at Old City Hall. The exhibit, created by self-taught artist Stephan Wanger, of Germany, features a culmination of Louisiana scenes, history and culture.

Wanger employs a unique mosaic art form that uses recycled Mardi Gras beads individually hand-cut, molded and arranged to depict Louisiana scenes —from the 42-foot panoramic view of New Orleans with 1.4 million beads, to the vast white cotton fields of north Louisiana.

Other scenes show beignets and boiled crawfish in Cajun country.

Ninety percent of the beads used in the exhibit pieces are recycled beads, he said.

The exhibit, which took a few days and a few strong men to set up in Old City Hall is virtually indestructible, Wanger said.

This is one art exhibit that the public can touch, he said.

“How can you say no to Mardi Gras beads not being touched,” he said.

Wanger, who at 46 has finally found his passion, first began creating the exhibit five years ago, after tinkering with Mardi Gras beads he used to decorate planters.

“There were beads everywhere,” Wanger said as he remembered his first year in New Orleans.

But, after creating the planters, he knew that the beads could be used to create something larger and much more meaningful for the people of Louisiana.

Wanger first used beads to create mosaics on doors that New Orleanians discarded from Katrina-flooded homes.

Wanger said he believed the bead creations were a way to promote Louisiana culture, and reuse discarded items so that they wouldn’t end up in landfills.

“This helps to promote Louisiana and bring visitors to the state,” Wanger said, adding that he used his marketing and special event skills to get people excited about the exhibit. “I get to make a living, and educate youth about Louisiana.”

Wanger has drafted more than 3,000 youth from all over the state to help him create the pieces, which now travel to different parishes and will soon be traveling to other states.

The exhibit is booked for two years, Wanger said, adding that when it travels out of state, residents in those states will create pieces of artwork that will travel with the exhibit.

He hopes by engaging everyone, even people outside of Louisiana, that he will teach other communities that every community has something they can recycle.

The lesson in his work is very simple, Wanger says.

“In an instant gratification society, it shows that, yes, you can create something beautiful, but it just takes one bead at a time,” Wanger said.

When talking to youth, Wanger emphasizes that the concept is true for just about everything in life, from building college credits to earn a degree to becoming a career success.

“It took me 40 years to find my passion,” he said. “It took me six years to create my exhibit. It just takes time.”

And for Wanger, time had been on his side. In 2012, Wanger broke the Guinness Book of World Records by creating the world’s largest bead mosaic, Sanctuary of Alegria, an 8-foot-by-30-foot mural of the New Orleans riverfront.

Wanger first came to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in an effort to help rebuild a city that many questioned whether or not it should be rebuilt.

“I grew up with a lot of ruins around me,” Wanger said as he talked about the destruction done during World War II. “I grew up where people made that decision, ‘Should Germany be rebuilt?’ I said, ‘Of course! It’s my homeland.’”

Wanger said that as an adult, the memories of wondering why the question of rebuilding Germany was even an issue weighed heavily on his mind. He said he remembers wondering why no one believed it was an opportunity to make the country more beautiful.

He also wondered why people in other parts of the country wondered why the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina wasn’t also an opportunity for New Orleans to recreate something much more beautiful.

To make a living when he’s not working on the exhibit, Wanger creates his own pieces, which he sells.

He takes commissions for artwork from individuals and businesses.

While some of his pieces go for upwards of $35,000, he generally charges $300 a square foot for a commissioned piece, he said.

While he hasn’t had a vacation in four years, and rarely takes a day off from working on the exhibit, Wanger said he hasn’t tired of it yet.

“If you come from an economically depressed region, it’s a deeply humbling experience to build something that no state has,” he said.

During the exhibit’s six-week run, 60 pieces of colorful, Louisiana-themed, beaded artwork will be on display at Old City Hall or businesses in downtown Denham Springs, he said.

Wanger plans to conduct weekly workshops to teach his mosaic art techniques to children and adults.

He plans three new pieces that reflect the flavor of Denham Springs and Livingston Parish, including Old City Hall, the street scape of the Antique District and the Boat Festival on the Tickfaw River. New pieces of Denham Springs-themed artwork will debut at Wanger’s next stop in Natchitoches. The community is invited to help create these added pieces free of charge.

In other workshops, for a $20 fee, participants can bead a mask or picture frame and take it home.

For information, call Old City Hall at (225) 667-7512 or visit “Bead Town Denham Springs” on Facebook.

The Bead Town exhibit will run through June 16 at Old City Hall, 115 Mattie St., Denham Springs.

The exhibit is presented by the Denham Springs Main Street Commission.