By Jennifer Fontaine – The year was 1990, and I was a junior in high school. More than 50 percent of the students at my school participated in some sort of arts program from drama, speech, and debate to music and visual arts. So when we learned the School Board had voted to cut art-education funding that year by more than 25 percent, we organized a school-wide walkout. In the end, it didn’t change their decision. But it had a monumental effect on my outlook on life and solidified my artistic career path.
Flash forward to January 2015. I flew into my muggy hometown of New Orleans for a travel convention, looking forward to connecting with others impassioned by family, outdoor- adventure travel and dead-set on eating my weight in oyster po’boys. As I glided across the convention hall’s more than 50,000 square feet, shaking hands and exchanging business cards, something extraordinary stopped me in my tracks.
As I stood there, mouth agape, absorbing every inch of a 95-foot sparkling mural, a man approached and introduced himself as the artist of the magnificent work of art. I stepped closer, my heart pounding, my breath quickening, to discover that this man had created a masterpiece from nothing more than 5 million recycled Mardi Gras beads. Here the visionary German artist Stephan Wanger answers questions about his recycled-artwork programs.
Jennifer Fontaine (JF): When did you begin your career as an artist?
Stephan Wanger (SW): Well, I was originally originally a baker (laughs). I served four years in the German Navy and immigrated to the United States in 1990. (Kismet? I think not!). I went to college, graduated, and worked in marketing and tourism with the city of Chicago during the World Cup soccer tournament and the Democratic National Convention. Then Katrina happened. Because I was so grateful for what the U.S. had given me, I wanted to give back. So I packed up everything and moved down to help out.
I realized pretty quickly that there was a huge misconception about New Orleans. Everyone always talks about Bourbon Street and “beads for boobs,” but I found it to be so much more family-oriented. I decided to use my degree to create artwork that rectified their image a little bit.
As a European, you get it pretty much in the crib about how to recycle, cardboard, cigarettes, plastic, paper, aluminum, everything. But this country is behind that, except California, who has made huge strides. I was overwhelmed by all these Mardi Gras parades throwing beads. Not that I?m condemning it because it brings families and communities together, which is very important. And the celebration of music, the parades, the costumes and everything else is important. But there had to be something we could do with this enormous amount of waste that was being thrown away.
So I started playing around with these beads, decorating plastic planters and things like this. The artwork looked horrible in the beginning, but I kept at it as I knew there was an opportunity, so that?s how I became an artist. Through my work helping to rebuild New Orleans, I was a carpenter there, I learned a lot about materials, how to prepare the plywood, the framing of it, etc. And I do all of this myself now, and it helped me tremendously as it translated to my art.
I like to say, I was trying to help New Orleans out, and New Orleans gave me an entirely new career.
JF: How have your efforts and artistic activism been translated into raising environmental awareness in the New Orleans communities?
SW: It’s been pretty interesting. We go into schools, and we teach the youth and the students how to work with this recycled material. We did a workshop with Social Living where people in the community were decorating little frames en masse, all with recycled beads. These were so successful that people were coming from all over the place; 200 seats were sold out in 48 hours.
We also started a project in Gary, Ind., another underserved neighborhood. After the steel industry left, they left this place pretty much in despair. So here we are teaching students and the community how to use local recycled material in artworks: bottle caps, screws, nails, etc. Anything a steel town produces.
JF: Outside of New Orleans and Gary, Ind., do you have any plans to expand the recycled-artwork program to other cities around the world?
SW: What I have learned is that the artwork is pretty cumbersome and the students all want to have a personalized one-on-one coaching from me. It’s a lot of teaching as well, so we must have the funds to train assistants on how to work with children who have speech impairment. Some kids we work with have very traumatic experiences; they have been shot or abused. So it’s not that easy.
Here in Gary, Ind., we are funded with a grant from Legacy Foundation. They are so excited about what Bead Town has accomplished so far that they want to maintain it. Gary, Ind. and northwest Lake County has invited me to work with the entire school district there. They are literally handing it over to me because we have so many artworks and so much space. One of our goals is to break another Guinness World Record with the students there.
So the long answer is yes, we would definitely like more Bead Towns. But the funds, coordination, and successful teaching of how we do this with the found objects is the main objective and is quite difficult.
JF: Through your teaching kids this artistic process, what other lessons have you found the students benefiting from while learning beading?
We are integrating this art program into innovative, inter-disciplinarian ways to teach kids everything from math and history to world geography, art history and more.
An interesting benefit we’ve found through giving kids a hands-on art project to complete is for kids with speech impairments. We’ve found that when you give them something to keep their hands busy, it’s easier to talk to them. They don’t think too much about whether or not they’re mispronouncing a word, and it builds their confidence.
We’ve also seen great potential in the area of restorative justice. You know, when you have a child who is bullying and a child who is a victim standing side-by-side working on an art project together, they learn that each one is actually a person and they begin to strip away their behavior.
There’s a lot of potential with all of these elements.
JF: Do you sell your work online? Is there a way to support you and your work with kids?
SW: I’m so busy seven days a week with the students, I really neglect my own artistry. I would love to create my own artwork and sell them online. But what usually happens is that people contact me for a commissioned piece or we collaborate on an event where we create artwork. For example, I’ve done pieces for the local VA (sic) hospital and Operation Hope. There’s a lot of opportunity for inspirational collaboration between companies, non-profit organizations and my artwork.
To learn more about Stephan Wanger, his art, or to get involved in any one of his current community projects, visit his website. You can also check out this great video of Stephan and the Gary, Ind., community creating one of his masterpieces, “Just Bead It.”
Jennifer Fontaine is the founder of Outdoor Families Magazine, publisher of MommyHiker.com, a blog to encourage outdoor activities with children, and an activist filmmaker inspiring dynamic change in the world. She lives in Southern California with her family.