As you stand downtown and watch the throws fly from float to crowds in these next weeks, take a second look at our most cherished festive accessory. Those Mardi Gras beads are more than a sign you’re enjoying the pre-Lenten season; for one Mobile artist, they’re supplies.
“Some of the beads I catch, but mostly people just give them to me,” Kathleen McCarron said. “I have a friend over in New Orleans and she gives me some, and just other friends give me all their beads. I have a whole room of beads that are separated into colors in boxes.”
Under McCarron’s imagination, eye and ardor, those cheap trinkets take on a new life as far more valuable art. They form the essential ingredient of mosaics in a niche the Mobile artist has claimed for herself.
“About five years ago, I was looking at a book in a store about Mexican folk art, about Our Lady of Guadalupe with illustrations, and it just hit me because so much of it had real shiny aspects to it,” McCarron said. “I went ‘Mardi Gras beads’ in kind of like a little light bulb moment.”
Though her hands wrest out a living as a massage therapist, McCarron always used them for other pursuits. Among her sidelines, visual art was a recurring distraction.
“I don’t have a degree in art. I took art in college at South Alabama, but I just love to do it,” McCarron said. “I’d go through spurts where I’d do it for a while and then I wouldn’t.”
With her new goal in mind, she set to work recreating the inspiration: Our Lady of Guadalupe. But it would take more than the acrylic-on-paper path she commonly trod.
“It’s on a piece of wood, so it won’t give because they would pop off,” McCarron said. “I draw it on wood, then paint it because you can see between the beads and it gives it a richer color. Then after I finish, I start gluing the beads on with a heavy-duty adhesive. They’re on there good.”
Following the Mexican religious symbol, she went for a masterwork. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” was next.
Since she was working with supply material so tied in with Mobile’s identity, her next few works followed suit. Subjects like Joe Cain dressed as Chief Slac can be found on the walls at Cathedral Square Gallery where McCarron recently became a member.
“I think it’s a perfect medium for this part of the country,” McCarron said.
And she’s spot on. Right here in the Port City, Mobile Mask publisher Steve Joynt has being crafting bead art in his Thrown Art studio for several years now. And McCarron says she knows of a few bead artists in New Orleans, though not very many.
One of those referenced Crescent City artists has dropped a gift on the Mother of Mystics as bead artist Emen Levy has a piece hanging in the RSA Tower. The mosaic entitled “Mardi Gras in Mobile” and was done to pay tribute to the nation’s oldest Carnival celebration. It depicts a float, some of the accouterments of the celebrations and the city’s skyline.
Levy has been in several group and one-man shows in NOLA. He recently had one piece accepted as part of the permanent collection at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
Stephan Wanger is another Louisiana bead artist who has made a big splash the last few years with his recycled-bead works, filling an entire gallery himself. He specializes in sizable pieces, some which are practically murals and even festoons older objects such as pianos with his bead mastery.
“I did some shows over in New Orleans this summer and people would come up and ask me, ‘did Stephan Wanger teach you how to do this?’ I didn’t even know who he was and would have to tell them it’s possible for two people to think of the same thing.”
McCarron has earned quick notice in Mobile. Not only are her friends showering her with ideas for other subject matter — “revelers, MoonPies, I’ve got ideas swimming around in my head” – but the commissions are coming in at a faster clip.
“I’ve got a 50-by-26 frame here I want to use to do another Joe Cain. I also have a smaller one commissioned for somebody in MOTs [Mystics of Time],” McCarron said. “I know I’m going to use a dragon in there, but right now that’s as far as I’ve gotten into it.”
Another patron has commissioned her to depict all the major Mardi Gras organizations. They didn’t dictate whether to use seals or emblems, so the artist has been pondering.
It doesn’t stop with secret societies. Other aspects of life in Mobile’s tonier quarters are bound for beadwork.
“Someone else has commissioned me to do one of the Old Shell Road Trolley that runs people back and forth to Spring Hill,” McCarron laughed.