Mention Louisiana, most people’s minds automatically think of Mardi Gras in the Big Easy. For NCPTT’s summer interns, we have a goal to experience more than that, and to delve into the rich culture and heritage of the region. German-born artist Stephan Wanger is making that goal more attainable with his new exhibit – Bead Town Natchitoches – that opened on Friday at the Natchitoches Art Center. His work utilizes the remnants of Mardi Gras – the thousands of pound of disregarded beads – to produce mosaic murals that depict positive connotations of different cities and parishes within Louisiana.
The project began after Hurricane Katrina, when Wanger saw reports on the news and heard of people who wondered why Louisiana was worth rebuilding, and how damaging that attitude would be to the people of Louisiana. He compared it to growing up in Germany and seeing movies about the World Wars and learning that reconstructing Germany wasn’t “worth it” to some people. That prompted him to come to Louisiana and see how he could help.
“Could I maybe do something with these Mardi Gras beads?” Wanger wondered. “I want to show images of Louisiana and promote tourism beyond the borders of Louisiana.”
In a June 2013 interview, Wanger also commented on his unique material choice.
“I believe we have something here that no place in the world has,” he explained. “We have an art form here that’s unique to Louisiana, made out of Mardi Gras Beads. And what a great tourism engine it could possibly be.”
Bead Town Natchitoches opened to great admiration, with high hopes for community engagement and tourism benefits. The Natchitoches opening is part of the traveling exhibit that began in New Orleans, but has also been to Denham Springs, Slidell, and Winnsboro.
Cane River National Heritage Area executive director Cynthia Sutton lauded the exhibition, and Wanger’s efforts to cultivate tourism throughout Louisiana.
“These were materials that were nothing more than trash left over from a celebration with the very real resource of volunteer labor.” she says. “They were brought to life the inspiration of an artist who created and guided the project.”
The room, covered in approximately 15 pieces, featured images like a King’s cake, butterflies, Louisiana State University, Oak Alley Plantation, a map of Louisiana freeways, cotton fields, and two room-length pieces that depict the New Orleans skyline, one at night, one in the day. The nighttime piece, “Paragons of New Orleans,” currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest mosaic made out of Mardi Gras beads, but not for long.
Wanger commented on his own fault’s in putting together the exhibit, noting that he initially fell victim to the standard New Orleans focus, and how, as the exhibit travels and grows, the balance will shift to regional identity.
“What Bead Town does is very simple. We make pieces that represent the region. For Winnsboro, we did the cotton field. We do this because when people travel and you say you’re from Louisiana, people say, ‘Oh, New Orleans, right?’ and you get a little tired of it,” Wanger explained. “Yesterday, a lady walked in and said, ‘Oh, looks like it’s an exhibit about New Orleans,’ and I cringed because she’s right. I hope that lady comes back six months from now to see what we do here in Natchitoches.”
Wanger hopes to capitalize on Natchitoches’ 300-year anniversary year, coming up next year, to promote the value of art, volunteerism, and cultural heritage in aiding the education of Louisiana’s youth. Wanger, a new father, expressed his shock at how many concerns burden the U.S.’s children, and promised that Bead Town would make an impact to change that in each Louisiana community that it visits.
“We’re going to make 300 prints available that will be sold 300 times for $300 each. All that money goes into a trust fund, and the goal is that the money will not be touched for 300 years so that, in the future, our children don’t have to worry about the cost of education,” he said. “When you put $90,000 in an investment calculator for that long, it literally generates billions of dollars.”
Even further, the highlight of the Natchitoches exhibition will – purposefully – break the Guinness World Record that Wanger already holds, by extending the length of this new mosaic by one entire panel that will depict the historic Front Street river front.
“We already have the story of New Orleans, the crawfish boil, all the pieces that are sprinkled around town,” Wanger said. “We’re going to tell the story of Natchitoches in a 300-year anniversary project because we are the first settlement in the Louisiana Purchase.”
While Wanger never used the words “cultural heritage,” “historic preservation,” or “NCPTT,” I felt his message applied to our work at the Center. In each of our projects, we are working to better understand how the resources – built and natural – add to our sense of community, and what our roles as preservation professionals will be once we leave NCPTT.
We can only hope that we’ll have as much vision as Stephan Wanger.