Helping the world with Mardi Gras bead mosaics
Stephán Wanger is saving the world, one plastic Mardi Gras bead at a time.
The long center table in Stephan’s Galeria Alegria is lined with dozens of clear cups, each filled with beads in a particular hue. Aquas here, cranberries there, tangerine and shell pink and translucent pearls – a veritable rainbow of bright little orbs, enough to fill a goodly portion of a curbside dumpster, which is exactly the point.
“Seven thousand tons of plastic Mardi Gras beads go into landfills every year,” says Stephán. “If you combine what we’ve thrown away in the past 20 years with what we will throw away in the next 10, you have the exact tonnage of the BP oil spill.
“You know the difference? Oil is organic and dilutes in water. Plastic stays forever.”
Stephán’s solution to the problem is an artistic one: He has used more than 1 million beads so far in the oversized mosaics he creates in his Magazine Street studio. He also teaches bead mosaics to elementary school students and at in-gallery workshops.
His artworks, while occasionally inspired by pop art whimsy, lean astonishingly toward photo-realism, given his medium. Subjects range from plantations to streetcars, skyscrapers to food labels.
Bead art is challenging, he admits, “because it’s not considered a fine art. But mosaics have been an art form for centuries, and there is no other place in the world that has this medium.”
Certainly Stephán’s canvasses bear all the intricacy and detail of, say, a Mardi Gras Indian suit. He “paints” landscapes by using subtle changes in shade and size of his beads. Thus, the smokestack on a steamboat uses six different shades of black to give it dimension; a thicket of bushes employs dozens of different beads in hues of green.
The journey to Magazine Street bead mosaics was an unlikely one. A native of Germany, Stephán says he grew up hearing people question his country’s worth. “They would say Germany shouldn’t have been rebuilt, because it had started two world wars. It does something to you, when people say things like that about your birthplace.”
In 2005, he was living in Chicago and working in the corporate world there when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees broke.
“There was this discussion, should New Orleans be rebuilt,” Stephán says. “I thought, that is the most hurtful thing you can say to someone, that your home is not worth rebuilding. I knew I had to go there, and help somehow.”
Stephán headed to New Orleans, found a construction job through Craigslist, and began renovating houses in Lakeview. At night, with no friends in the city and little to do, he began playing around with the ubiquitous Mardi Gras beads that seem to litter any New Orleans living room.
“One day, I thought, these planters all look the same. So I started decorating them with beads.”
Stephán has come a long way since that first bit of garden décor. He has pretty much taught himself the best way of sorting, placing, gluing and positioning individual beads in his mosaics.
His first big work, “Center of the Universe,” was based on all the musical influences of the city. His next piece featured a giant map of the city, incorporating the Jazz Fest logo and whirlwinds representing Katrina and Gustave bouncing off the musical notes to “Walking to New Orleans.”
Much of his work features New Orleans icons – gas lamps, fleurs de lis, street scenes, crawfish boils. He has perfected the art of spray-painting beads to get hard-to-find hues, and can manipulate his beads to convey such subtleties as moonlight reflecting off a wrought-iron fence.
His masterpiece is “Sanctuary of Alegria,” a five-panel, 30-by-8-foot mural that portrays a cityscape of New Orleans as seen from the Mississippi River. The mural includes signatures by more than 300 people, many of them tourists – from Paraguay, Italy, England, Chile -- who wandered into Stephán’s gallery.
“Sanctuary of Alegria” will be unveiled on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Monteleone Hotel during the grand opening of The Carousel Bar. When complete, says Stephán, it will go into the Guinness Book of World Records as the planet’s largest mosaic made out of beads. In March, the giant mural will be auctioned at a Make It Right benefit, with proceeds going to that program’s efforts to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward.
But Stephán won’t stop there. He dreams large. His next project: to take his mosaics showcasing New Orleans on a statewide, then national, then international tour.
“The exhibit will be interactive – people can touch the beads,” says Stephán. “I already have people overseas who want it. I want to show them what makes New Orleans special, to bring people here.”
Meanwhile, he stays busy teaching bead mosaics at three local schools and at workshops sold through Living Social. The first series, in September, was the fastest sell-out ever for New Orleans. The current series continues Wednesday, with food, wine and a Mardi Gras mask project.
“Ninety-eight percent of my students are female,” says Stephán. “So if guys want a date, my workshop is the place to be.”
Stephan’s school students are allowed to sell their works in his gallery; he takes no percentage. His own works sell readily, and he also takes commissions for made-to-order mosaics, which have included portraits both of visages and St. Charles mansions. A Stephán mosaic of gas lamps hangs in a home in Toronto, another of St. Louis Cathedral in a living room in Jackson.
While so far Stephán is probably the only full-time professional Mardi Gras bead artist in town, he hopes to see the art form grow. After all, there are a lot of beads out there to be recycled.
“I’d like to see each krewe demand that one float in the parade throw only recycled beads," he says. "I want to see that required by city ordinance.
“It’s all about accountability – about things like not taking off your beads when they get too heavy around your neck and throwing them away."
Instead, he pleads, take them to St. Michael’s Special School or the Arc, two local bead recycling centers that also employ people with special needs. Stephán gets most of his own beads at one of the two programs, spending hours sifting through tangled strands in search of the perfect raw material for sky or sea. More hours are spent cutting strands into single beads and sorting colors.
The art itself is incredibly time-consuming, too. The mosaic column in one corner of his gallery used 68,000 beads, and progressed at one square inch per hour.
“It’s pointillism at its finest,” says Stephán with a laugh.
"A Million Greetings from New Orleans," Stephan Wanger's world-record Mardi Gras bead mosaic, will be on view at Countdown to Tales of the Cocktail 2012, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Carousel Bar, Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal Street.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]