Artist Creates Beauty One Metal Petal at a Time

Joey Bonhage i i

Joey Bonhage, 66, sits at his artist's desk in New Orleans' Garden District. His studio attracts a parade of daily visitors. Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson
Joey Bonhage

Joey Bonhage, 66, sits at his artist's desk in New Orleans' Garden District. His studio attracts a parade of daily visitors.

Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson
Joey Bonhage's Sculpture of Bluebells i i

Bonhage's Virginia bluebells metal sculpture, priced at $1,800, sits in his New Orleans studio. Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson
Joey Bonhage's Sculpture of Bluebells

Bonhage's Virginia bluebells metal sculpture, priced at $1,800, sits in his New Orleans studio.

Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson
Joey Bonhage's Workplace and Home i i

Bonhage's dusty studio is his salesroom, and the front door is usually open. The lighting is dim and there are sheets of tin and bottles of paint scattered around. Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson
Joey Bonhage's Workplace and Home

Bonhage's dusty studio is his salesroom, and the front door is usually open. The lighting is dim and there are sheets of tin and bottles of paint scattered around.

Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson

Visitors to New Orleans' leafy Garden District will usually find artist Joey Bonhage hard at work in the front room of his home, shaping delicate flowers out of long sheets of metal.

Bonhage can create exquisite flora and fauna out of tin and wire — but he rarely leaves his small, wooden Washington Street house to see the real thing. The 66-year-old New Orleans native suffers from chronic emphysema, due to years of heavy smoking. Just walking from one room to the other leaves him winded. Though tethered to an oxygen tank 24-hours-a-day, Bonhage still finds joy in his work and in the steady stream of visitors who buy his art and stop by to say hello.

As child growing up in 1940s New Orleans, Bonhage admired his grandmother's porcelain flowers, but he had a difficult time finding his true calling. He knew he was gay, so early on he joined a seminary intending to become celibate. But the seminary didn't work — and neither did college — and Bonhage didn't see himself working in the family hardware business.

So he started making flowers, and gradually his art took off. A show at a Chicago gallery in 1969 received two full pages of coverage in the Chicago Tribune. Eventually admirers like Lady Bird Johnson, Helen Hayes and Joan Crawford bought his work. Bonhage, who respected his father deeply, wanted his approval. But it was hard-won.

"I was crushed when he said 'who do you think is gonna buy that crap?' — his exact words to me one day in the hardware store," Bonhage recalls. "But then, after the show in Chicago, I got a very large check and I showed him before I put it in the bank and he was stunned."

Today, Bonhage's botanical sculptures command thousands of dollars. His gallery is nestled among landmarks like Lafayette Cemetery across the street and the famed Commander's Palace restaurant on a nearby corner. After meals, diners frequently stroll over to the gallery to window shop.

His neighbors also stop by to check in and take him meals. Workers from the restaurant bring over turtle soup and leftover French bread, which he uses to feed the birds and squirrels.

Throughout the steady ebb and flow, Bonhage continues working late into the night, methodically crafting nature's most exquisite creations. Despite his illness, Bonhage says he treasures every moment — especially the time after midnight when the city gets quiet.

"Everything about being alive is wonderful," Bonhage says. "Someone said the other day, 'doesn't dragging that oxygen around like that make you crazy?' Any day above ground is a great day."

Reporter's Note: How I Found Joey Bonhage

Joey Bonhage at his New Orleans studio i i

Joey Bonhage can usually be found at his workbench crafting intricate botanical sculptures in his worn studio in New Orleans' Garden District. Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson
Joey Bonhage at his New Orleans studio

Joey Bonhage can usually be found at his workbench crafting intricate botanical sculptures in his worn studio in New Orleans' Garden District.

Courtesy Phoebe Ferguson

In a small wooden house in New Orleans' Garden District, the sculptor Joey Bonhage was usually at his artist's bench, working under a pool of light. A framed newspaper article in the window told the story of an artist who made flowers from metal and was now suffering from emphysema.

Back in February and through Mardi Gras, I'd spent five weeks in New Orleans reporting for NPR. Most evenings at dusk I'd go out for a walk, admiring the fine, old houses. I'd pass the bright lights of the Commander's Palace restaurant, open again after a $6 million post-Katrina renovation. Lafayette Cemetery was across the street, gated and gloomy.

On the opposite corner, the house with the "Gallery" sign was comfortably worn and inviting, but I never went up to the door to say hello. I didn't want to bother anyone. The images stayed with me though, especially the small flower sculpture in the side window, with blossoms and leaves that were at once bright and somehow also dusty.

I wondered about the artist: How did he learn his craft? What did his voice sound like, and how was his illness affecting him?

My editor at NPR in Washington said, "Next time, go talk to him. Could be a good profile." And late in August, during a Gulf Coast trip, I called Joey Bonhage and asked if I could stop by. One night of laughing and storytelling became two.

Lots of mysteries remain about his life and his art, but I'm pleased I finally walked through his door.

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