Courtesy of the Times
Stephan Wanger was lately in Natchitoches, Louisiana discussing a Bead Town promotion in honor of the city’s status as the oldest city in the Louisiana Purchase. Natchitoches was established in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, who diplomatically named the town after a local Indian tribe. But before he gets to that project, he’s back in New Orleans, where his home and gallery (Galeria Alegria) are located in the French Quarter, talking with me and Robert Hanrahan, who is managing the promotion of Methodist Hospital Foundation’s Mardi Gras-themed fundraising efforts which culminate each year in mid-February with a masked ball. (The prize for the Krewe raising the most funds for the foundation is a trip to the real Mardi Gras, which officially occurs on Tuesday, March 4th in 2014.)
Stephan and Robert met for the first time by chance at the Fat Tuesday celebration last February. Stephan Wanger’s Bead Town projects were already locally famous by then. Although Stephan arrived in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, his project of creating large works of large, publicly displayed, destination pieces of art out of recycled beads, took several years to get going and longer than that to have an impact. Working with recycled beads was labor intensive so Stephan would typically take five or six weeks on a commission “to pay the rent,” as he says and then move on to the next job. Gradually he got opportunities to work with schools and other civic groups but 2010, when he created NOLA’s Resilience was the big breakthrough for Stephan. “I got a local actress to put on this veil and makeup and created this piece,” a mosaic of her head, with two tombstones in the background one for Hurricane Katrina and another for the BP Oil Spill, measuring six-by-eight feet. The artwork, which contains 200,000 beads, was unveiled five years after the hurricane and one month after the Macondo leak was plugged, on August 26, following a jazz funeral to the JW Marriott hotel. That anniversary event received worldwide coverage and after that Stephan was inundated with requests for fundraising art projects.
“And here’s how I’m making money in the meantime. I’m executing these social living events at the Galeria Alegria, charging $45 per person, for food and frame-making and everybody is coming in and making bead art and these events would sell out in a week,” he explains. Then there were more out-of-town gigs that attracted tourists to small towns nearby like Natchitoches, like Winnsboro, Louisiana where Stephan had 10 locations for Bead Town---four in schools---that drew thousands of visitors in 2012. The following year was a triumph with 1.5 million recycled beads cut and placed by an army of volunteers to create the Paragons of New Orleans a night skyline 8-feet high and 42 feet long to benefit the Arc of Greater New Orleans and the St. Michael Special School, two non-profit bead recyclers.
Stephan, who was born in West Germany, but traveled as a naval soldier and decided to move to Chicago in 1990. He graduated with a degree in marketing and advertising from Columbia College in 1996 and worked for Mayor Daley’s Office of Special Events on projects including the Democratic Convention that year. Stephan learned a great deal working in the city and came into contact with the Creoles there. He decided to leave Chicago, he says, after the big projects were played out. He ended up in New Orleans after the hurricane because he thought there would be opportunities. “I just moved down here,” he says. “I was thinking I could just pick up a hammer and build a roof. I was in my mid-30s then. I wanted to be outdoors.”
The chance to bring Bead Town to Northwest Indiana seemed logical and natural to Robert and Stephan. By the time Stephan and his crew (workers who hold workshops and help volunteers create and install Bead Town art) arrive here in December there will be several locations including the Miller Arts and Creative District’s Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts where bead art will be created and exhibited. The work and the fun, Robert says, will get underway with the opening exhibits on January 6th and will last about six weeks. If it’s anything like other Bead Town’s some projects will be more family oriented than others. For adults there are the possibilities of restaurants sponsoring mask-making and frame-making workshops. Schools may opt to create and auction their own mosaics of bead art. There will be one major piece specifically made as a donation for the Methodist Foundation.
Skeptics may challenge this idea, considering the weather and the time of year in this area. Stephan understands that but he’s confident, nevertheless. He believes in the “outcome itself,” he says. “It’s the art form itself. There is nothing to compare it to; it’s a collective work that makes the outreach perfect.”