The Bead Town Experience: Fostering Community through Recycled Mardi Gras Beads and Imagination

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As a new Main Street Manager, you are quickly exposed to all kinds of events, requests, and ideas.  My third week on the job, I was told that I would be attending a Bead Town meeting.  My first thought was, “what is a Bead Town?”  I would soon find out as Natchitoches became immersed in all things Bead Town.

At the very first meeting, representatives from various groups and organizations throughout the city were mesmerized by the charismatic Bead Town creator, Stephan Wanger, a German-born self-taught artist who creates dazzling mosaics using recycled Mardi Gras beads.  Inspired by Hurricane Katrina, Stephan looked for a way to give back to the community and to create beauty in the midst of chaos.  Appalled at the amount of Mardi Gras beads collected in landfills, Stephan decided to transform and reuse the beads to create iconic images of Louisiana to help promote tourism in Louisiana.

Bead Town is an interactive art exhibit that is composed of more than 80 beaded mosaics made of recycled Mardi Gras beads.  The Bead Town experience includes workshops in which the community plays an active part in the creation of beaded mosaics to represent their city or town by cutting, sorting, and placing beads on original works of art. 

Stephan told of previous Bead Towns and Guinness World Record breaking mosaics.  The Main Street communities of Winnsboro and Ruston hosted the first two Bead Town exhibits setting the bar for subsequent Bead Towns.  Bead Town: Slidell broke attendance records having over 7,000 people visit the exhibit and selling out workshops prompting the City of Slidell to declare an Official Bead Town Day.  Bead Town: Denham Springs added excitement by hosting scavenger hunts and mask-making workshops.  Stephan was declared an honorary citizen of Denham Springs.

The City of Natchitoches was sold and we could not wait for this incredible exhibit, complete with two Guinness World Record setting mosaics, to come to our community.  The City of Natchitoches through the Natchitoches Main Street Office teamed with Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., Northwestern State University, the Natchitoches Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the Boys and Girls Club, and local schools and businesses to make the project come to life.  Major funding for the project was provided by Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., and Northwestern State University donated workshop space. 

The City of Natchitoches provided the venue for the two-month long exhibit to be displayed right in the heart of the Natchitoches Historic Landmark District at the Natchitoches Arts Center.  More than twenty Bead Town pieces were displayed throughout Natchitoches at area businesses and attractions.  A second exhibit, entitled Building Bead Town, was displayed at the Orville Hanchey Art Gallery on Northwestern State University’s campus and consisted of unfinished Bead Town mosaics.

An opening reception, sponsored by LaCapitol Federal Credit Union, was held on June 21, 2013 to introduce members of the community to the Bead Town experience.  More than 150 guests were in attendance including Mayor Lee Posey, Parish President Rick Nowlin, and other elected officials.  Attendees were amazed at the beauty and size of the beaded murals, and they quickly began spreading the word to family and friends that Bead Town: Natchitoches was a must-see!  Visitors from near and far flocked to the Natchitoches Arts Center to view the incredible display that words could not describe. 

Workshops were held three times a day, four days a week, to allow members of the community to be a part of Bead Town.  In the first week of workshops, 150 children and adults attended the Bead Town workshops, and by the end of the two month exhibit nearly 1,000 people had signed up to place their mark on a piece to represent Louisiana.  Scavenger hunts and mask-making workshops were held weekly allowing participants to take a piece of the Bead Town experience home with them.

While Bead Town: Natchitoches may have ended, the Natchitoches Legacy has only just begun.  Stephan Wanger announced at a press conference in July plans for the Natchitoches Legacy Art Project, an 8’ x 48’ Guinness World Record attempt beaded mural depicting the downtown streetscape in honor of Natchitoches’ Tri-Centennial Celebration.  Three hundred prints of the completed mosaic will be sold at $300 each to establish an educational trust fund for the youth of Natchitoches parish.  This trust fund will ensure that in 300 years, no child will have to worry about the cost of education.

For more information on Bead Town or the Natchitoches Legacy Art Project, please visit www.galeriaalegria.com.