Two years ago, the “Peace is Always Beautiful” Art Block debuted in the Bas Bleu catalog. We were charmed by the whimsical illustration, the thoughtful quotation, and the wonderfully bookish detail of a canvas backed with book pages. Our readers liked the art block as much as we did, and since then Bas Bleu has partnered with artist Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes on a half-dozen lovely little keepsakes (and an inspired collection of greeting cards set to debut in our Winter 2021 edition next month). Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Michelle took a break from her studio to talk to us about the pros and cons of working with salvaged materials, the shift in focus created by the pandemic, and how she first “met” Bas Bleu.

picture of artist Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes writing in a notebook

Bas Bleu: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to becoming an artist.

Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes: I took a bit of a circuitous path to get to the place of being a professional artist! I’d always adored photography and elective art classes in high school and college, but I focused on English Literature in college and Women’s Studies in graduate school. I also worked as a student employee in the university library in the book repair department where we breathed new life into damaged titles. On the rare occasion we couldn’t save something, it was purged from the stacks and discarded…and by “discarded” I mean “I grabbed it from the bin and brought it back to my apartment” because I couldn’t bear to see these beautiful pages destroyed. I continued this trend after graduate school when I became a full-time librarian: At one point, we had an entire section of our basement full of these old books! It took a little time for the inspiration to strike and combine my artwork (which I still created on a regular basis during my lunch breaks and on weekends) with these book pages, but by 2009, MKC Photography was my official full-time job.

person sands the edges of a wooden 5x5 art block

BB: You recycle materials—salvaged wood, old books—to create your art blocks. What creative and practical challenges and benefits does this present?

MC-H: Using salvaged material does indeed present challenges because it’s not as easy as walking into a store and purchasing the supplies I need. Luckily, I have a network of dedicated “scouters” who will call and text any time they spot viable discarded wood or furniture—in fact, last year we saved over 1,300 pounds of wood from the landfill. My oldest son can now drive to pick up wood for us, but once when he was eleven years old, he was rather late coming home from the bus stop. When I walked outside to investigate, I saw him dragging a discarded bookcase that he’d spotted on his walk home. He was so excited to contribute to the cause! I also have a wonderful network of librarian friends who keep the studio well supplied with purged titles—there’s nothing so exciting as finding a pile of treasures on our studio steps. We’ve yet to experience a shortage of any kind—even during the pandemic—because people are still remodeling and discarding old cabinetry and furniture items, and I’m certain my damaged-book-stash will last through at least the next  century.

Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes tearing dictionary page to back art block

BB: Walk us through the creation of one of your art blocks, from inspiration to completion.

MC-H: The first step is always the artwork! I have a several sketchbooks and notebooks that I fill with ideas and designs, and then I set out to photograph and illustrate the pieces I need to create my artwork collage. At the same time as I’m creating, my husband and sons are always busy sourcing, collecting, cutting, and sanding the salvaged wood so that I have a ready supply of blank 5″x5″ blocks. I have a wonderful studio assistant, and together we tear all the salvaged book pages down to size so we can wrap the wood with the paper (the blocks we make for Bas Bleu are all covered with pages from a discarded 1933 Oxford English Dictionary). I then adhere the prints of my artwork onto the front of the blocks, and we give them several coats of non-toxic, water-soluble sealant to protect the art and the paper. Finally, I sign each block so that you know it’s a true handmade, one-of-a-kind piece.

components of Joy Art Block ready to be assembled

BB: What other mediums do you work in or hope to work in?

MC-H: I would love to have the time to take a painting class—it’s something I haven’t done since I was in high school, and I think it would be so much fun! It’s on my list of things to accomplish once the boys are off to college and I’m no longer their official chauffeur during evening and weekend hours.

rows of finished Joy Art Blocks by Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes

BB: How did you first “meet” Bas Bleu?

MC-H: [Bas Bleu’s Merchandising Manager] Ann Gregory was so kind to visit us on the very last day of a trade show in Manhattan in 2018. We were exhibiting in the Handmade section of the show, and she came in to our booth with a big smile. She told my husband Marty and I that she had a flight to catch but didn’t want to leave without letting us know how much she loved our art blocks. Ann handed me the latest Bas Bleu catalog and asked that I contact her once we arrived back home after the show. After she left, I started looking through the catalog and Marty still remembers me getting very excited and saying “I LOVE this company and I would buy EVERYTHING in here!” I knew immediately that Ann was right: Bas Bleu and MKC Photography would be a really wonderful partnership.

artists Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes standing in doorway of art studio holding finished Joy Art Block

BB: How (if at all) has this year’s pandemic affected your work, either in content or in practice?

MC-H: The pandemic certainly brought a more local focus to my work…instead of finding inspiration through distant travel, I found it in our local parks and our own backyard. When things were completely quiet through the end of March and April, I decided to take the time and challenge myself by doing more painting and illustration (and this is when I realized I’d love to take classes in the future). Much of my new work is very nature-focused, and it’s been a joy to slow down a little bit and focus on the beautiful things that are right outside the studio windows.

BB: When you’re not working in your studio, how do you enjoy spending your time?

MC-H: I should probably say something really interesting like “mountain climbing” or “white water rafting” but that’s not even close to true. I actually love nothing more than a comfortable chair, a hot cup of coffee, and a book. My other favorite way to spend time is in a comfortable beach chair, with a cold drink, and—of course—a book!

BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?

MC-H: That’s a tough question because there are so many, but I’d have to say the top of my list are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and No Flying in the House by Betty Brock. I was constantly opening cupboard doors looking for Narnia or hopping around to see if maybe this time I’d be able to take flight. I also have to include Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: I will admit publicly here, for the first time ever, that I do recall putting my hands on every mirror in my grandmother’s home, hoping I’d find one I could walk through. There’s no doubt my constant search for magic appears in my art today!

BB: Which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?

MC-H: Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict and The Huntress by Kate Quinn are two of my most recent favorites – you won’t be able to put either one down!

BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?

MC-H: I am so excited for readers to see the set of notecards that MKC Photography and Bas Bleu just collaborated on for 2021! It was such a joy creating new artwork and pairing it with beautiful literature selections—I think everyone will really enjoy the uplifting words and artwork that celebrates nature and new beginnings. Stay tuned for the winter catalog!

BB: Thank you, Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes, for giving us a peek into your studio…and for creating such memorable little masterpieces!

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