After watching a video about the scores of birds who die from ingesting plastics found in our oceans, artist Denise Hughes put down her paints (for a bit) and started collecting bottle caps.
Using the tops of everything from milk containers to applesauce pouches to sports drinks and more, Hughes layers the different colored caps on top of each other to create incredible murals of the animals who "consume the plastics which bring them alive on canvas," she writes on her website.
Once she got started, Hughes, a mom of two, began to consider a much bigger canvas - an exterior wall of the Raleigh school that her boys attend. During this school year at Joyner Elementary School, families collected bottle caps at home for kids to drop off in bins around the school. In April, Hughes used the caps to create a massive piece - the Joyner Family Tree, she calls it - with the help of staff and students at the school.
I chatted with Denise by email about her project and her work. She'd love to bring the project to other schools. Here's our conversation.
Go Ask Mom: You've been an artist for a long time. How old were you when you first discovered your love of art. And tell us a little bit about your career before now.
Denise Hughes: I have been an artist for as long as I can remember! My second grade teacher, Mrs. Kelly, encouraged my mom to get me proper art lessons. However, due to limited resources, they were short lived. I went back to my elementary school while I was in college and Mrs. Kelly was still there. And to my amazement, she had laminated all of my old drawings which were still being used on the monthly wall calendars!! It was then that I realized I had made the right decision to pursue a career in art.
I studied medical illustration at East Tennessee State University for three years and graduated from East Carolina University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Upon moving to Raleigh, I began my mural business and have completed murals throughout the Triangle. When not painting murals, I work on commissioned landscapes and portraits in my home studio. My work can be seen in Marbles Kids Museum, WakeMed, First Citizens Banks throughout the southeast, Greystone Rec Center, Oberlin Road Pediatrics, as well as homes and other businesses around the country.
GAM: You haven't worked a lot with bottle caps until recently. How did this all get started?
DH: Ha. Good question. A friend of mine at Lacy Elementary School collected caps and worked on smaller pieces using the caps. I thought it was so clever! I then began researching plastic and got sucked into the dire situation of the plastics in our oceans! What struck me most was a video by Chris Jordan of Midway Island. The caps are literally killing the animals as they consume the floating pieces, thinking they are small fish. I encourage EVERYONE to watch this video, however, it is NOT for the faint at heart! A mere three-minute clip that will change your life forever!
Needless to say, after seeing that video, I began to take action! So began my plastic life!! I have created 10 pieces depicting ocean life in response to the worldwide problem of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It truly affects us all on so many levels. By collecting the caps and creating beauty from all the toxicity, we are raising awareness in our children, schools and communities.
GAM: Was there a lot of trial and error in working with the caps at first? Tells us about the process of experimenting with the caps and figuring out how to make large-scale works with them.
DH: There was a lot of trial and error in the figuring out.
How am I going to get thousands of caps?
How am I going to attach them?
And what will I attach them to? Having done murals on such a large scale really helped the cap art come to life. The bigger they are, the better they read. Walter Magazine did a lovely write up of the projects.
GAM: When did the idea come for creating something at Joyner? How did the collection work? How did the installation go?
DH: I have always wanted to do something for my boys’ elementary school, but never knew what exactly. I approached the staff to discuss my ideas and they were totally on board. First, I did a presentation to the fourth graders, discussing the plastic problems in our oceans and what we can do to help. I put decorated trash bins in the foyer of the school as well as the cafeteria and the caps started pouring in! In April, I gathered our entire collection and washed the entire lot … quite a feat! Some of the school moms helped sort colors which was actually therapeutic. We held a Saturday morning “painting party” to cover all the plywood to be ready for the following week. The kids and parents had a ball! Mr. Fotta, the art teacher at Joyner, was amazing! When kids came to his class for art, they each were able to choose two caps and screw them into the wood to create our “Joyner Family Tree." The kids absolutely loved using a drill (most for the first time) and were thrilled to be a part of the project. That’s 679 students, 2 caps each, 8000 caps total.
Installation was amazing! A group of four contractors volunteered to come to the school and hung it up within two hours. Later that day on Facebook, one of the contractors said, “Hanging this beautiful work on a perfect sunny breezy beautiful afternoon, surrounded by children laughing and playing, and sharing the community of it all with the teachers and faculty from the school...It may be the pinnacle of my professional life.” WOW!
GAM: You'd love to do more of these at schools. What are your hopes for this project going forward?
DH: Yes, I would love to continue this project at other schools and possibly, businesses. I am currently looking into corporate sponsorship/partnerships to help facilitate this. It is a great learning tool on so many levels. Recycling, the environment, awareness, ocean pollution and turning trash to treasure! And, at the end of all that, you get an amazing piece of art created by everyone which will be enjoyed for years to come!
GAM: As a mom of two boys, how do you balance your life as a mom and an artist? Do you have the answer?
DH: BOY OH BOY! I wish I did have the answer! The boys have become accustomed to all of my crazy ideas over the years, but they seemed especially proud of the Joyner project. As for balancing, I can only quote Dr. Seuss who said, “So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a Great Balancing Act.”
You can see more of Hughes' work on her website.
Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.