Quincy Hughes is a jack of many trades. She's a nurse, multimedia artist, jewelry maker, mother of five, art teacher. But she's an expertâ€"perhaps the world's foremost expertâ€"in one particular substance.
Hughes makes art from dryer lint, and teaches kids to do it, too. That requires a certain dedication to collecting the stuff, and seeing it as more than, well, lint.
"I've gotten to be quite the connoisseur," she admits. "It can be quite different. You get a nice white from diapers. Red sweatshirtsâ€"cool."
Since most dryer lint tends to be gray, Hughes loves finding colors. And if you look, she points out, you'll see other things in the lint, like seeds or grass or dog hair. "It's like most things in life. You have to learn to appreciate it," she says.
Hughes makes her living as a nurse, and has focused her interest on health care for the homeless on the West Side. When she went back to school (she's in a graduate MS in nursing/MBA program at North Park University), she took an art class as a respite from all the science. "It reawakened my interest in art," she recalls.
She began teaching 3-D art and jewelry-making classes for the Park District of Oak Park about seven years ago, in the SCAW and After School Arts programs. Currently, she's teaching 3-D art after school at Irving and Lincoln schools.
In recent months, having art as an outletâ€""to get some stuff out," says Hughesâ€"has become particularly important to her. A reaction to medication she was taking for rheumatoid arthritis caused her to suffer reduced lung function, and she's on oxygen full time, at least for the foreseeable future.
The dryer lint idea came out of brainstorming for the first SCAW class, which Hughes co-taught with her daughter-in-law, then a teacher at Beye. They thought about doing something with paper mache, but that felt old hat.
"I said, 'What about other fibers?' I'd done some papermaking, and really good paper is made out of rag stock. Then I thought, why couldn't you make paper out of dryer lint? It's cloth. So I started playing with dryer lint and I liked the results," she recalls.
Hughes teaches on her own now, and dryer lint art is always part of the equation. Kids in her classes collect the stuff and bring it to class. But that's just the start.
"I've got sources all over Oak Park," she says. "I've got six people who save it regularly for me. Also, I live in a big apartment complex and I cruise the basement laundry room. People think I'm a crazy lady, but there's a method to my madness."
Along with lint, Hughes uses all kinds of found objects for her artwork, and encourages her students to do the same. Her Oak Park apartment is a happy brew of finished, partially finished and just imagined projects. Few discarded treasures escape her notice.
"I like to challenge people to think of found objects and trash in a different way. It's the old hippie in me," she says.
Making art from dryer lint is fairly simple. Mix up some adhesive, add the lint, and create. Hughes likes to make plates and bowls, so she uses plastic ones as molds. She also flattens the mixture into sheets, carving out earrings or other small objects. Free form works, too. The dried result feels a bit like felt. Decorate, add a sealer, and voila.
She's actually sold some of her own creations. "People buy weird things," she comments.
Hughes did a series of collages (no lint included) on women's experiences with breast cancer a while ago. She entered one in a contest and just last week found out it was chosen to be part of a traveling exhibit. First stop was the Royal College of Art in London.
The lint, though, remains a favorite. "It's weird, unexpected stuff," she says. "We all need to tap into fun, weird things. Kidsâ€"adults tooâ€"need more of that."