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Artist Creates Beauty One Metal Petal at a Time

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."

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Noah Adams, long-time co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, brings more than three decades of radio experience to his current job as a contributing correspondent for NPR's National Desk., focusing on the low-wage workforce, farm issues, and the Katrina aftermath. Now based in Ohio, he travels extensively for his reporting assignments, a position he's held since 2003.
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