There’s strength in numbers. Artist Stephan Wanger knows that. He wanted to make a strong statement with his art, wanted to create sweeping scenes of Louisiana in rich, bright colors and careful contrasts. He decided to use the mosaic form — with Mardi Gras beads serving as the medium, lots of beads on large surfaces.
“As a bead artist, I’m restricted to the size of the beads,” Wanger said in a phone interview from his New Orleans studio.
“In order to show detail, I have to go large.”
Wanger’s works are all about detail and “photo-realism.” He processes mostly donated strands of Mardi Gras beads and processes them by hand, cutting and shaping the beads with the help of volunteers.
“I use all kinds of different shapes,” he said.
He then sorts the beads into colors, using the resulting palette to mix vivid colors much like an oil or acrylic painter would. He then prepares a plywood surface, primes it, paints an image on, then applies glue. “I don’t grout like other mosaics,” he said.
Wanger said he uses two special glues made in Pineville. One is called E6100 and the other is called E6000. The second one is “self leveling” and provides a flat surface. He has to work fast at that point. “It dries within 24 hours,” Wanger said. “If I make a mistake and it dries, I have to chisel it off.”
Wanger put 250,000 hand-cut Mardi Gras beads on the mounting surface for the piece titled “Nola Resilience,” which depicts a veiled woman walking away from an above-ground cemetery, the woman representing New Orleans itself. “LSU’s Tiger Stadium on Saturday Night” needs no explanation. The LSU landmark is depicted in purple, gold, blue, silver, pink, white, gray and black beads. Old City Hall director Patti Smith Peairs said the gray color was a challenge to Wanger.
“They don’t make a gray Mardi Gras bead. He had to paint them.”
The sheer tedium of gluing so many beads to such large canvasses (“The Sanctuary of Algeria,” a 2011 creation is 30 feet by 8 feet and contains more than a million beads) would seem daunting. Some of the projects, like “Broadmoor,” a pastel toned map of the historic New Orleans neighborhood, were executed as co-operative projects with school and community groups. The small “Birdhouses for Books” beaded structures were inspired by a Wisconsin project that promoted reading and literacy. The little houses invite neighbors to “Take Book. Return Book.” The New Orleans versions are covered in beads.
King cake, Ruston peaches, Zapp’s Potato Chips, Hubig’s Pies, the Acadian flag, Barq’s Root Beer, Tabasco Hot Sauce, red beans and rice, po-boys, Tony Chachere’s Seasoning, Oak Alley, muffulettas, Cafe DuMonde, cotton fields, fleurs de lis, a Louisiana map, the New State Capitol, Gulf oysters, a crawfish boil, the New Orleans riverfront — they’re all subjects for Wanger’s beaded mosaics.
“What makes Bead Town so successful is the love of Louisiana,” Wanger said.
The traveling exhibit will move to Natchitoches next, but Wanger also plans to take it national with a venue in Gary, Ind., already scheduled and more in Chicago, Tennessee, Mississippi and Michigan also on the horizon. Going international is not out of the question, Wanger said.
Some of the works are for sale. For $36,000, you can pick up “The Titillations of New Orleans,” a New Orleans street scene featuring Cafe DuMonde, street performers and more. Too expensive? The image “Oak Alley” can be bought for $27,500. It contains 72,000 beads — less than 40 cents a bead if you’re keeping track. That’s hardly excessive.
Peairs said it takes Wanger one hour to create one square inch of beaded image. One of Wanger’s works, “Paragons of New Orleans,” is 42 feet wide and could not be accommodated in the Denham Springs venue and is instead on display at the Capitol Park Welcome Center in Baton Rouge.
But you don’t need to worry about how much the works cost if you just want to look at them. The exhibit is free. It’s open through Sunday, June 16. In addition, Wanger is is holding workshops in Denham Springs to teach adults and children ages 8 and older the bead mosaic method.
The artist will create three new works depicting Livingston Parish during the workshops. Some of the classes are free, but Thursday evening workshops have a $20 fee. Call (225) 667-7512 for information about classes.
Bead Town Denham Springs is open at the Old City Hall, the white-painted, ’30s-era building on Mattie Street, a small almost-alley just off the main drag in the city’s historic district. Old City Hall is small, but it’s big enough to serve as a community center and sometimes art gallery. Wanger’s pieces are scattered throughout the building, in the foyer downstairs, the large meeting room upstairs and other smaller rooms on both floors.
Visitors can tour the exhibit in about 30 minutes but may want to linger with some pieces a bit longer and extend their stay. Docents are on hand to guide your tour and/or answer questions. There are eclectic galleries, shops and antique shops located steps away on Mattie Street and North Range Avenue. Ten of Wanger’s bead artworks are located not in the Old City Hall but are salted through businesses in the historic district.
The exhibit is presented by the Denham Springs Main Street Commission and the City of Denham Springs and sponsored by Keep Livingston Beautiful, Livingston Business & Real Estate Journal, Livingston Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau, Livingston Parish News, Candlewood Suites, Country Roads Magazine, Five Star Printing, Louisiana Main Street, Raising Cane’s, Denham Springs Antique Village Merchants Association, Livingston Parish Federal Credit Union, Traffic Control Products and Albertsons.