Art innovator Stephán Wanger transforms one man’s Mardi Gras trash into another man’s pictorial treasure. The artist and proprietor of the New Orleans art gallery Galeria Galeria Alegria, achieves this feat of material conversion with talent and aplomb, meticulously arranging recycled Mardi Gras beads into vibrant mosaics. The results are dynamic depictions of iconic people, places and symbols of New Orleans and Louisiana, full of color and depth. I was fortunate enough to ask the artist a few questions, revealing his inspiration, technique and affection for his current city.
1. How did you get your start as an artist? Can you tell me a little bit about your background and your relationship with New Orleans?
I am originally from Wilhelmshaven (near Hamburg), Germany and immigrated to Chicago in 1990. I have a B.A. in marketing from Columbia college, Chicago. Under the leadership of mayor Richard M. Daley and his brother, former U.S. Secretary of commerce and current chief of staff Mr. William Daley, I worked as a director of special projects for the city of Chicago host committees for the 1994 world cup soccer tournament and the 1996 democratic national convention with the sole responsibility of positioning Chicago in such a way as to get a worldwide TV audience excited to consider traveling to Chicago. In 2000, I joined a Canadian financial software company as business development director in charge of Europe and north America, with the task of increasing sales leads. During my tenure with the company, I traveled a few times to New Orleans and fell in love with the city. After hurricane Katrina, I decided to move to New Orleans to help rebuild the city.
2. What first inspired you to use Mardi Gras beads in your work?
After my first Mardi Gras parade in the city, I noticed the insane amount of beads that were thrown and hauled away at the cost of taxpayers. I couldn’t believe it. I started to use reclaimed Mardi Gras beads and glued them onto plastic planters. I showed my first pieces around town but feedback was like, “Stephán, don’t waste your energy or talent. A lot of artists melt or make art out of beads.” From my humble efforts on the planters, I learned that I was constantly limited by the size of the beads. So in order to show detail, I had to make larger visuals. After work and on the weekends, I progressed, creating these murals. For a couple of years I still got no response when reaching out. I applied to all these artist-support organizations in New Orleans in order to display
Or sell my art but was flat-out denied by all of them. Instead of giving up Mardi Gras bead art, I made it my mission.
3. How does your medium impact viewers’ experience of your work?
I execute my work in a photorealistic style. I recreate scenes, images, and icons of Louisiana to help bring awareness to the innate beauty and wonder of the state’s unique culture and varied communities. When folks walk by the gallery, I hear them just say, “oh, bead art.” But when they walk in, you will hear them say 95% of the time, “amazing,” “wow,” or “I can’t believe those works are made out of Mardi Gras beads.” They touch the art and ask me while touching the art if it is ok to touch the art. They take pictures of my art, and while taking pictures they ask me if it is ok to take pictures. I always say, “hey, those are Mardi Gras beads, they are supposed to be touched and have pictures taken of them.” How can I say “no” to that? It has been overwhelming for me. My gallery is located on 1914 magazine street, and has been open for 16 months now. I will be moving at the beginning of November 2011 to 1924 magazine street, a building that has four times the space. I currently cannot accommodate the size of the livingsocial or private events or the amount of volunteers that like to work on my community projects. It’s all been a very humbling experience for me.
4. Who/what are some of your artistic influences?
Through my experiences traveling the world, I have gained insight and influence from the Spanish art nouveau designs of AntonI Gaudi, the Moorish and Persian architectural details in Istanbul, turkey, and the sculpture and environmental art of Chicago artist and friend john David Mooney. These designs and images have translated to my work in pattern, design and fine detail. Though I am not formally trained as an artist, I engage in a craft that speaks to fine art, and I do borrow the ideals of post-impressionistic pointillism and emulate the style and scale of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art works.
5. You stress recycling and conservation of materials. Why is art such a powerful tool in delivering this message?
I want to bring attention to the prevention of global warming through the promotion of recycling old materials. Mardi Gras parades generate about 10,000 tons of trash along the gulf coast every year. Most of the trash is beads, lots of beads. If you add the tonnage of Mardi Gras beads thrown over the last 40 years together and add the next 10 years to it, you have the tonnage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The difference is that the oil in the gulf dilutes, the beads in landfills do not. What starts as a happy string of beads being thrown to a smiling catcher gets worn for a couple of hours and then goes into storage. The rest, the unluckiest beads, are being hauled to the next landfill. It is my mission to capture the excitement of the thrower to the catcher and through art, make that happiness everlasting. Nothing beats the smell of brand-new merchandise. A consumer-based society changes old habits slowly. It’s my personal challenge always to make my art smell and look brand-new.
6. How do you decide your subject matter?
First, my art has to promote the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans in such a unique way that it will generate interest in our city and motivate exhibit visitors to travel to New Orleans and Louisiana. Then I decide what’s my current emotional state of mind. My large works take such a long time to create (we are talking months) that I really have to select something that comes from the deepest spot of my heart. I really have to relate to it. When I created nola’s resilience last year, I went through an extremely difficult time of my life. I wanted to bury it. Remembering the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I felt that all of Louisiana wanted to bury Katrina, so I visually buried it and with it the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We executed a jazz funeral on Canal street to unveil nola’s resilience at the JW Marriott New Orleans. After all that negativity previously surrounding my art, I really feel that I have conquered something. Hence my mural of the maid of Orleans—our Joan of arc.
7. Can you describe your technique and your artistic process?
In preparation for the formal construction of each artwork, beads are meticulously sorted by size down to the exact millimeter and perfect shade, creating a detailed and varied palette much like a painter would for painting. The key is cutting all beads off the strand. I use e-6000 as an adhesive because it gives me flexibility when applying the beads as tightly as possible. I use really tiny beads to fill any gaps. Additionally, the resulting play of light and color add a new dimension of glitter and shine through the use of metallic, plastic and luminescent beads. Like disco balls. I create the illusion of three-dimensional space through the use of perspective but also the variety of bead size to create actual dimension and add an element of bas-relief.
8. How does your art relate to people within and outside of New Orleans?
Folks really love to take home a piece of New Orleans. I have sold artwork to Europe, Canada and Asia. I am glad to say that I have accepted large- scale mural commissions from Phoenix, AZ and Jacksonville, FL all the way through February, and because these works take so long to create, I can barely keep up the demand to have smaller pieces displayed in local businesses. I still see firsthand how New Orleans and Louisiana suffer after Katrina and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Musicians still need more bookings. The lower ninth ward still needs help. I am working closely with many not-for-profit organizations and have donated to anyone who has asked. I am very thankful for the opportunities this country has given me, and am honored that I can give back a little bit. I am deeply humbled that I am allowed to do art on a full-time basis, using mostly recycled materials and promoting Louisiana at the same time.
For commissions contact: Stephán at Galeria Alegria or 1914Magazine@gmail.com
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