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The Medium is the Message

For Stephán Wanger, Mardi Gras beads, his medium of choice, are symbolic of New Orleans’ triumphant spirit.

Cheryl Gerber

There is never a shortage of Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans. In varying shapes, sizes and colors, they appear to be one of our most abundant resources. But what do we do with them when Fat Tuesday is over? It’s difficult to throw them away; it seems wasteful. And yet they sit in overflowing boxes or bags in our homes, taking up space in the closet or the attic until next Carnival rolls around, when they are joined by the next batch.

But for one local artist, Stephán Wanger of Galeria Alegria, these beads are his medium, representative of the modern New Orleans, a city that celebrates, creates and rebuilds –– often out of salvaged or unlikely materials.
Like many who relocate to the Crescent City, Wanger had visited several times and felt an immediate connection to New Orleans and its people. Originally from Wilhelmshaven, near Hamburg, Germany, Wanger has a penchant for travel and adventure that began when he was a child and escalated when he joined the German navy. While working with NATO, he says he traveled to “a lot of foreign cultures. At 19, I set my foot on North American soil and decided I’d try my luck in the U.S.” He first moved to Chicago and graduated in just two-and-a-half years from Columbia College with a degree in marketing and communications. During the 1994 World Cup in Chicago, Wanger worked to promote the city to national and international audiences as director of special projects. Here, he developed an eye for design. “I worked a lot with graphic designers and visual marketing,” he says.

After the Democratic National Convention, for which he also worked, Wanger became a business development director for a financial software company. “I made good money,” he notes. “But I wasn’t happy.”

It was during these years that Wanger took several trips to New Orleans, and following Hurricane Katrina, he felt especially compelled to move to the city and help with recovery efforts. “I knew I had to do something,” he says. “So I settled my affairs in Chicago and came down here to work for a construction firm. I wanted to help. I wanted to get a pulse for the city and its people.” As he arrived, he says, “I was surrounded by construction materials; tons of Mardi Gras beads; and, as always, way too much energy!”

It was one day in his garden that Wanger discovered his artistic calling. “I was bored with the terra cotta style of this planter,” he says, pointing to the first piece he created, which sits in his gallery, perhaps as a reminder of how far he’s come. “I thought about decorating it with beads. The first one was whimsical and unprofessional. I learned to make a tighter mosaic by cutting the beads from the strand.” He says he honed his craft by “playing around with geometric templates.” The materials he needs are ordinary household items — he cuts beads on a wooden cutting board, sorting them by color and size. He uses a glue gun and self-leveling glue called E-6000. He then draws rough sketches of the visions in his head and arranges the beads on top of a sketch, usually on a wooden frame. “It can be a cumbersome art form,” he muses.

Fortunately, he gets help from two good friends, Karen Benrud of Café du Monde and Martha Sternitzke; he fondly refers to them as his “bead ladies” because of their support in helping him prepare his materials. He’s also grateful for the kindness of strangers, who often leave strands –– or bags –– of beads at the entrance to his gallery. 

The results of his labor are vibrant and bursting with color, and they pay tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana staples: Café du Monde, Oak Alley Plantation, pelicans, water meters, street lamps and harlequin patterns are among some of the works adorning the walls of his gallery. He also accepts commission work. With his gallery, Wanger says he wants to focus on happiness (“alegria” means “joy” in Spanish), though he acknowledges that you “can’t ignore disasters.”

In August 2010, just days before the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Wanger unveiled a composition that he’d been working on for months as a tribute to the city’s ability to triumph over tragedy. Titled NOLA’s Resilience, the 6-foot-by-8-foot mural is an intricate, heartfelt dedication composed of individual beads that he has amassed over time.

This particular image depicts a somber-looking veiled woman –– local actress Shauna Rappold –– walking away from a cemetery marked with two gravestones meant to represent two of the region’s most recent catastrophes: the hurricane and the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the future, Wanger hopes to continue making large mosaics; plans currently include both swamp and  streetcar scenes. He hopes to auction off many of these works with proceeds benefiting a variety of local nonprofits that focus on rebuilding efforts, including the Tipitina’s Foundation, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Make It Right, Sweet Home New Orleans, New Orleans Musicians Clinic and others.

By January 2012, he plans to take a traveling exhibit to multiple cities across Europe in order to promote the culture of New Orleans. “Every bead serves as a greeting,” he says. “People will never look at Mardi Gras beads the same way.”

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