Mental Floss

The Beading Queen: Liza Lou

Andréa Fernandes

We wrap up this week of presidential history with two of Liza Lou's 42 presidential portraits, "Abraham Lincoln" (1996) and "John F. Kennedy" (1996). The American artist, sometimes known as "The Beading Queen," creates highly detailed and intricate hand-beaded sculptures.

1. Liza Lou's portraits of presidents George Washington through William Clinton are created entirely out of beads and bordered in wide bands of gold beads to look like framed black and white photographs. To Lou, the "zillions of beads" used in the portraits symbolize "grand campaign promises of a sparkling future for America and the fulfillment of the American dream." But there's a fun side to the portraits, too, as Lou remarks, "It's humorous to see men in beads. Herbert Hoover is not someone you associate with glitter.

2. A former student of the San Francisco Art Institute, Lou describes her transformation from painter to beader: "I began as a painter and I walked into a bead store and it was just like a flash in my mind. I just thought, "˜My God, that's the most amazing paint I've ever seen.'" She was "hated" for her use of beads and "mortified" her teachers and classmates, but her $500,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in 2002 helped silence some of those who believed her work wasn't real art.

3. The glass beads used in Lou's work are all from the Czech Republic; she explains that Czech beads "are really the most wonderful beads on earth." Though she originally bought them in small packets, she now buys so many at a time they're delivered by truck and unloaded with forklifts. Her 1999 sculpture "Back Yard," a full-sized (600 square feet) suburban lawn, is comprised of more than 30 million glass beads, many of which are in the 250,000 individually beaded blades of grass that make up the lawn.

4. Lou's parents were bohemian Manhattanites, living in an apartment below Roy Lichtenstein, but they became born-again Christians at a revival meeting. They burnt all their books and artwork, including original Lichtensteins that were gifts from the artist himself. Lou was raised watching exorcisms and speaking in tongues. Her performance piece, "Born Again," illustrates her "fire-and-brimstone childhood."

5. Lou, who has said she's "interested in rescuing things in some way," started medical and educational programs and museum trips at her studio in Durban, South Africa, for the Zulu artisans she employs. Lou and the 25+ artisans start each work day singing and dancing, and continue to sing throughout the day. Lou went to Durban "with the idea of attempting some politically responsible outsourcing" by paying unemployed artists good wages. Yet despite the help she provides her artisans, Lou says, "I'm not, like, the white lady with the answers. I'm a total student here."

Larger versions of "Abraham Lincoln" and "John F. Kennedy" are available. For more presidential portraits, check out Tuesday's post on Norman Rockwell. Fans should check out Lou's collection at Deitch and her self-portrait. Current Exhibition:Liza Lou (New York: through December 13, 2008) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.