After so much pestering from their dear friend, one simple drawing finally convinced Eric and Lisa Wagoner, the owners of Iva Lee’s Restaurant & Lounge, to make a hopeful change for the future.
The drawing, which surfer, artist, and musician Bill Stewart contributed, detailed a mural of a moonlit night in Cajun country and an old-fashioned wooden stage that would take the lounge’s music space to the next level.
From there, the Wagoners jumped on the idea to give Iva Lee’s new life.
“They took a serious beatdown in COVID that really hurt their business and hurt them financially,” Stewart said. “So, I thought if they do this (renovation), it’ll stir the whole thing up.”
Lisa Wagoner opened the restaurant in 2002 in her grandmother’s name, honoring the woman who taught her to cook and clean and impacted Wagoner’s life in countless ways through her Southern heritage.
Her husband, Eric, has been friends with Stewart for about 30 years, and the trio have formed a deep friendship that has developed as Stewart has played music at Iva Lee’s for decades.
Stewart recalled how the band stage used to be in the corner of the space, with little room to sit down before the restaurant expanded in 2014.
Even then, with the stage now near a front window, Stewart felt it would be best to move the stage to the restaurant’s far wall. The Wagoners were hesitant, fearing the music would spill over and distract those on the dining side.
Once they all concluded that the bar area closest to the stage was where Iva Lee’s made the most money, Stewart proposed that he’d paint a mural for free if Eric and Lisa agreed to move the stage.
Eric was initially unsure whether his wife would like the drawing Stewart presented to him, but Stewart was confident.
“Two days later, she’s tearing booths out, and (she) went nuts to make this happen,” said Stewart of how Lisa felt about the design.
As the couple left for a European vacation during the week of Thanksgiving, Stewart hunkered down and painted the mural that depicted a dock leading out to a body of water with a wispy tree to the left and critters to the right.
He joked about initially believing he could finish the project in one day before realizing that wouldn’t be possible, as the first day spilled into the next. His affinity for how the mural was taking shape encouraged him to continue.
“Details take time,” Stewart said. “The more details you put in the painting, the more time it takes. So, I just kept going until I was happy.”
It took four days to get everything right, but the Wagoners’ surprised reaction to seeing the finished product was well worth it.
Lisa said they drove straight from the airport to view the mural at around 9 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving.
“I had just come from going to the Músee d’Orsay in (Paris’ Seventh Arrondissement), and had seen some incredible artwork,” Wagoner said of the French museum. “I was just blown away. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Stewart knew that he had captured the desired effect of being in the Louisiana swamp from the looks on the couple’s faces, he said. For Lisa, the image held extra importance, as it reflected a longtime dream of hers to have a house with a porch where she can watch the sun rise and set with a cup of coffee.
“When I saw his drawing, it was like, ‘Well, that’s the way I want to retire, just out in the sticks on a porch,’ ” she said of her reaction, adding: “If I could look from the porch to what he painted, I’d be very happy.”
Lisa added that she and Eric appreciated Stewart’s help. She also acknowledged the difficulty of pivoting to something new after years of the same vision for Iva Lee’s layout.
Already, the mural has substantially impacted the business and its energy, said Stewart.
It is another factor within the new-look lounge space that was transformed after the pandemic nearly forced the Wagoners out of business.
The restaurant replaced the booths with tables and high-back chairs to establish more of a social atmosphere, and also got to work installing the wooden stage and decorations surrounding the mural.
Lisa detailed a recent success that came when her friend had her 40th birthday party at Iva Lee’s, and the dance floor was packed with a DJ present to play music. Consequently, the restaurant will start hosting a DJ to perform from 7:30-10:30 p.m. on Wednesdays to bolster the experience it provides as an event venue.
“We’re fortunate that we have such incredible bands that play here, and that people have a safe place where they can come dance and listen to music,” she said.
The Wagoners showed their gratitude for their friend’s kind deed when Stewart’s band played at the lounge after the revamped space had been introduced.
Randomly, Stewart looked up to see an Iva Lee’s employee wearing a Stewart Surfboards shirt in honor of his own business. He then saw another, and another, realizing that several within the bar area were participating in the tribute.
“I’m so happy that I initiated this,” Stewart said. “They always had been thinking about it, but that little drawing made it happen. Without that, this wouldn’t be here.”
He added that he felt much better by gifting the mural project to the Wagoners than he would’ve felt by charging a significant sum in return for the service.
Likening Iva Lee’s to his own version of the Cheers bar where he loves to stop by, Stewart wanted to do his part to help the restaurant avoid closing.
“If I can assist (them) with my art and my love of the place, why not?” he asked.
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