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Waste Not: The Plastic World of Mary Ellen Croteau

October 20, 2014

From the media coverage of the Great Pacific garbage patch–a massive oceanic island of plastic waste—to the recent California legislation banning plastic shopping bags, our plastic footprint is catching up with us. Reusing and reminaging waste is the concept behind the work of Mary Ellen Croteau, whose exhibition “Plastic World” opens at the Yellow Springs Arts Council Gallery this month.


Croteau’s artwork is created from found objects, but more specifically, from plastic objects. Collecting thousands of bottle caps and disposable shopping bags, Croteau has built new worlds out of plastic waste, drawing attention to the excessive materials utilized for each installation. “My motivation for doing the work…has been my overwhelming concern for environmental destruction, and my desire to document or alert people to the problems of waste, and most especially plastic, which is made from oil and will remain for thousands of years to pollute the earth,” wrote Croteau.

Coordinated by Nancy Mellon, Gallery Manger of the Yellow Springs Arts Council Gallery, “Plastic World” demonstrates an appreciation of the art and nature. “Yellow Springs is a community that cares deeply about the environment,” Mellon wrote.  “Mary Ellen’s work…is a wake up call about man’s vast consumption and thoughtless use of nature’s bounty.  Ironically, we get to see her message through beautiful art.  When you look up close it’s trash, when you step back it’s amazing art…it makes me stop and think.”


“Plastic World” will include artworks made over a span of several years, including work from the series “Bottle Caps.” Portraits of eyes, made out of a variety of blue, white, black, purple, orange, yellow, red and green plastic bottle caps, hover between realism and abstraction. The installation “Endless Columns” features floor-to-ceiling caps, prescription bottles, and assorted jar lids creating colorful and energetic spaces through diverse palettes of color. Plastic shopping bags become the material of underwater worlds in “Bag Coral.” Using the palettes of white, beige and clear bags, the illusion of a dead coral reef is evident in the crocheted, braided and knotted materials.

A series of photographs created in collaboration with Chun Chun Hee, a collective based in Yeoju, South Korea, juxtapose images of plastic objects from the artists’ environments. Curated through an online dialogue for over a year, the photographs were exhibited initially in Nottingham, England, with the statement that the work “are presented not just as an indictment of the ubiquitousness of plastic (a product made from refined petroleum, and therefore contributing greatly to environmental destruction), but also as an ode to the poetics of human interposition in nature.

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Alongside the aesthetic value of “Plastic World,” whose attractive subjects, harmonious palettes and ambitious scales draw the viewer in, the deeper message resonates just as clearly. “I became concerned over the amounts of trash that were piling up in my life and in my neighborhood. I became concerned over my own contributions to world destruction,” Croteau wrote. “I make beautiful artworks from plastic waste which doesn’t get recycled. Even though plastic bags and bottle caps are collected they are mostly landfill because it is not cost effective to recycle them.  I make these works to raise awareness of each individual’s contributions to the waste stream in consumer culture.”

Based in Chicago, Illinois, Croteau received her Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois and a Masters of Fine Arts from Rutgers University. She has exhibited her artwork internationally including recent solo exhibitions in England and Chicago, as well as in Colorado, New York, California, Texas, Chicago, Iceland, Korea, Italy, Germany, Scotland, Colombia and Philadelphia. Published widely in journals, Croteau’s work was recently featured in publisher Phaidon Press’ 2013 book “Wild Art.” Croteau has family connections to Yellow Springs, including a daughter that attended Antioch College and a sister that resides in town. “Plastic World” is an opportunity for the artist to engage a worldwide issue in a dialogue with a connected community.


Croteau’s early body of work was also focused on societal challenges, with a focus on feminism; however her work continues to be fueled by a desire to bring attention to timely concerns. “I think the issues are not so different: Patriarchy treats the environment the same way it treats women – as something to be used up and discarded. We have to find new ways to look at the problem,” she wrote. “My work is both a reaction and a clarion call.” Yellow Springs artist Corrine Bayraktaroglu agreed, “I feel her work is passionate visual commentary on issues that affect us all.”

Croteau’s mastery of transforming mundane daily objects for use in the artistic sphere, as well as her impactful, contemporary subject matter make the artwork relevant to audiences all around the world. “I firmly believe in the power of the visual, and my work is my voice: a social critique and a visual challenge to all the cultural detritus we are force-fed every day,” Croteau wrote. “My art is about looking at things in a slightly different way, and is intended to undermine the status quo with wit and humor.”

Mary Ellen Croteau’s solo exhibition “Plastic World” is on view at the Yellow Springs Arts Council Gallery, 111 Corry Street, from October 18 through November 9. An opening reception will be held on October 17 from 2 – 4 pm. For more information, visit

This article was originally published in the October 14, 2014 edition of the Dayton City Paper.

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