Artist Creates Beauty One Metal Petal at a Time New Orleans native Joey Bonhage creates exquisite flora and fauna out of sheet metal — but he rarely leaves his small house to see the real thing. The 66-year-old artist suffers from chronic emphysema, but he still welcomes a steady stream of visitors to his dusty studio.
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Artist Creates Beauty One Metal Petal at a Time

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Artist Creates Beauty One Metal Petal at a Time

Artist Creates Beauty One Metal Petal at a Time

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Let us meet Joey Bonhage. He was born and lives in New Orleans. Sixty-six years old, he's a sculptor working in a small maroon house in the Garden District. He makes flowers out of pieces of tin and wire.

Joey Bonhage, truly of New Orleans, tends to answer any question with a story. So about the flowers…

Mr. JOEY BONHAGE (Sculptor): My brother and his wife came to town and I was sitting on the sofa after dinner. And one of my little nieces, Emily Rose(ph), one of her little friends, came up to me and she said, you're Emily Rose's Uncle Joey, right? I said, yes, I am. She said, what is it that you do? And of course, Emily Rose was right behind her little friend. And I said, I make metal flowers. And Emily Rose got in my face and she said, Uncle Joey, you don't make metal flowers. You make metal look like flowers.

ADAMS: I asked Bonhage to show me one of his recent works. And he walks over to pick up a display of Virginia bluebells.

Mr. BONHAGE: It's (unintelligible). Those are the plants. There's a big book over there that you could look through flowers.

ADAMS: And in the space of a few feet, Joey Bonhage in is breathing distress. He has chronic emphysema. Oxygen flows from clear tubing in through his nose.

Just walking to the door is a problem?

Mr. BONHAGE: Just going as far as that door. Cigarettes. But I enjoyed smoking. I quit for my 50th birthday. It took three months - cold turkey. Those (unintelligible) are wonderful. They won't rain, I think.

ADAMS: The oxygen, and that's why his voice is so raspy, is constant around the clock. It comes from a tank and a long tube (unintelligible). Bonhage has his workspace in his gallery in the front of his house. His living quarters were in the back. And now, the whole place is pretty much of a mess since he's trying to move his bedroom and his kitchen closer. At the center of the front room is a large high table with books and paint and paste and tools and wire and metal.

(Soundbite of sheet of tin)

ADAMS: A simple sheet of tin can become a green plant with blue flowers. Dusty. So, really, you have to touch it. Bonhage, as a child, admired his grandmother's porcelain flowers. But metal adds a kinetic quality.

Mr. BONHAGE: The fact that the porcelain flowers have sort of a porcelain look was exciting but they didn't wiggle. See how it sort of wiggles and…

ADAMS: It moves.

Mr. BONHAGE: But metal - unpainted metal is not, so I put rust paint then I put like three coats of Gesso, this thick white stuff. Kind of makes it look like if you would bite this leaf, it would crunch.

ADAMS: And the dusty look of the leaves and petals, that's Johnson's Baby Powder mixed into the paint. From the very beginning, the Bonhage flowers worked. And what else was he to do?

Out of high school, understanding that he was gay, he joined a seminary with the intention of just being celibate. That didn't work out and neither did college, and he couldn't see himself in the family hardware store. So he made the flowers at a show, and another one, and then a big deal at a gallery in Chicago in 1969, with two full pages in the newspaper there and a proud return to New Orleans.

Mr. BONHAGE: I knew I wanted to be a good man like my dad. I respected my dad so highly. And when I went up on this tangent making little tin flowers, you know, I was crushed when he said, who do you think is going to buy that crap? That was his exact words to me. And (unintelligible) one day and I thought, Mr. Joe, you know? But then, shortly thereafter, after the show in Chicago, I got a very large check from the original sales that were made. And I showed him before I put it in the bank and he was stunned.

ADAMS: Also on his table, a scrapbook of articles and letters - the Chicago Tribune stories there - a New Orleans article showing Joey Bonhage as a shining young man in a tuxedo, and thank you notes from movie stars: Helen Hayes, Joan Crawford, Lady Bird Johnson admired his flowers.

It's hard to imagine a better location for a botanical metal sculpture gallery, as Bonhage calls it. One landmark is Lafayette Cemetery just right across the street. On the other corner, the famed, expensive Commander's Palace Restaurant. After dinner, a couple can walk over to the gallery for some window-shopping. The door is open. You could hear music, see Bonhage working there under a soft light. Why not say hello and talk about the flowers. You could buy a single-stem violet-colored flower for $90. The Virginia bluebells, something like that, the price is 1,800. But if somebody wants to buy and seems hesitant…

Mr. BONHAGE: I give a better price automatically. I just - that's 50 cents worth of tin, Noah. The main thrust is not the selling of anything or getting money for it. The main thrust is the production of it. And once it's made, if it pleases me, I'm paid. Then if you come in or somebody else comes in (unintelligible), oh, joy, that's so beautiful, I'm paid twice. Then they say they want it. That's like being paid third time. And then they actually give you money. Whoa.

Unidentified Woman: Is there anything you need we can pick out for you - bring home for you?

MR. BONHAGE: Oh, thank you so much.

ADAMS: And people from the neighborhood, often out walking their dogs, will stop by to see if he's okay, take him some groceries, some yogurt. The Commander's folks will bring over turtle soup. And every night, they bring leftover French bread. He feeds the birds and squirrels.

The weekend in 2005 when Katrina was coming, Joey Bonhage was alone. There was no way to evacuate. At 2 a.m., before the storm hit, the police showed up to get him. A friend has called. A month later, he came back home, one shingle missing off the house.

Joey Bonhage, four years away from being 70, enduring emphysema, continues to work late into the night - sits making flowers and earrings. He likes the quiet time after midnight.

What's it like being so close to the cemetery here?

Mr. BONHAGE: Oh, it's kind of neat. I was thinking one day, when my hands are crapped and I can't cut sculptures anymore, I could write a series of books. I would investigate the people who were buried in that cemetery. You know, people always die with a lot more left to do in their life. So I would invent a story whereby I saw a portal going into the cemetery. Wouldn't that be a fun thing? And then I could go in there and talk to the people that are dead, you know, and finish their lives. One like what would you've done if you'd stuck around another couple of months, you know? Wouldn't that make a neat, interesting TV series?

ADAMS: Yes.

Mr. BONHAGE: He says so. Ain't you stupid? You said yes.

ADAMS: Yes.

Mr. BONHAGE: What an idiot? You can't. Nobody would believe that. Who would buy that crap, my father would say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BONHAGE: Who would buy that crap? Well, I mean, I sort of made it out to be less mysterious than it would be. I'd figure out a way to make it believable. I mean, I make people believe those are flowers.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Joey Bonhage, he calls himself a sheet metal worker, making flowers in New Orleans. You can see what he looks like and his flowers at npr.org.

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