Mary Ellen Croteau - March 2015

Shells, Oil Spill

I have been making artwork which comments on the state of our environment since 2000.  I have been working with non-recyclable plastic waste since 2003.  I first worked with plastic bags, riding, crocheting and sculpting them into ropes, rugs, coral and waterfalls.

I began collecting plastic bottle caps, whose colors are so vivid and beautiful, but which like bags, not recycled. This piece is made from an image from the internet of sea shells in a refined oil spill.

Plastic is made from petroleum (i.e. oil). Think of it this way: we go to war so we can have plastic bags and bottles to throw away.

I urge everyone to rethink their reliance on plastic containers, especially bottled drinks and bottled water. Chicago's water is clean and safe, you do not need to buy water in bottles that is not even required to meet any purity standards that our city water must.

Humans do not need hydration 24-7. That is a marketing need which has arisen only in the last few decades of human existence. Plastic bottles are an enormous strain on our fragile environment, from digging oil out of the ground to refining it, shipping it and making it into plastic, to disposing of it in landfills. Even recycling causes pollution.

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Mary Ellen Croteau - January 2012

Endless Columns

I am working with trash - stuff that can’t be or isn’t recycled, mostly because it is not financially profitable.  “Endless Columns” are made of plastic jar lids and bottle caps.  The colors are beautiful, but the trash is ugly.  I hope to make people aware of just how much garbage we are throwing onto the earth, especially plastics.  Worse, they are made from petroleum, exactly what we are fighting wars for.  People are dying so we can have disposable bottles and bags.   

Meanwhile,  I hope to take things that would otherwise go into a garbage dump and make beautiful environments from them.

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Mary Ellen Croteau - May 2011


This 8 foot by 7 foot self-portrait is made entirely of plastic bottle caps.  None of them were painted.  The color variations were achieved through layering the caps, nesting them into one another.  Your eye will blend the colors.  There are approximately 7,000 caps in this work.

This piece was inspired by the work of artist Chuck Close, who paints large portraits by creating a grid on a photograph and then looking for the colors in each square.  I had noticed that the plastic bottle caps I was working with on another project kept getting stuck together, and it made me think of Chuck Close’s circles of paint.

A Big THANK YOU to all who collected and sent me bottle caps, and to Resource Recycling, which let me collect caps from the recycling bins.

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Mary Ellen Croteau - September 2010


This project was designed to help kids really look at advertising, and see how media images are constructed to manipulate our self-image.  The children were asked to pick an ad from the New York Times Fashion Magazine, study it, and pose themselves as they saw the models do. 

The resulting photos say as much about the individual kids as they do about the ads.  Some saw the vacuousness in the model’s face, some just saw the pose, but in the end what shines is the kids themselves.  These faces are rarely seen in American media culture, but their beauty far outshines the hollow shells being portrayed in the ads.

Many thanks to Rachael Bild, children’s librarian at North Pulaski branch of the Chicago Public Library, and the children and parents of the Summer Reading Program.

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"Oceans Unravelled" - June 2009

“Oceans Unraveled”

The Chicago Coral Reef

A collaborative installation by Aviva Alter, Mary Buczek, Mary Ellen Croteau, Jessica Stapp and Amber Reyes

“Oceans Unraveled” is a woven testament to both the beauty of the reefs and to the fact that the amount of plastic and waste we are putting into the ocean (along with global warming) is threatening the coral reef system at an ever growing rate.  By using an ever-repeating crochet stitch, yarn and plastic are brought together to re-create this natural wonder.

This exhibit is a response by artists to the fact that 30% of The Great Barrier Reef is dead. It is estimated that 70% of all coral reefs around the world could perish by 2050.  The coral reefs are vanishing even more quickly than the tropical rainforests, and along with them the food chain that sustains us.

Under the current environmental stress corals ‘bleach’, they release algae, their source of food, and starve to death. The once colorful and vibrant world of crenulated living coral becomes white and lifeless. Forms that began growing over 50 million years ago are becoming extinct.  It is now up to all of us to participate in stopping this destruction of our oceans and our planet.

Oceans Unraveled is a sister reef of The Hyperbolic Coral Reef Project created by Margaret and Christine Wertheim of the Institute For Figuring (  ‘What began as a tiny seed in the Wertheims living room has morphed organically into a worldwide movement;’ with exhibitions in New York, LA, Chicago, Flagstaff and London..








Mary Ellen Croteau September 2007

Bag World

I was trying to think what to do with all those bags that you get everytime you go to the store.   Even if you bring your own bags, they still try to put the stuff in plastic bags before they put it in the ones you brought.  And no matter what they tell you, these bags are not recycled.  They are just collected and put in dumps.  We are swimming in a sea of plastic.  We

are drowning in plastic. Worse, these bags are made from petroleum... Yep, the same thing we’re fighting in Iraq for.  I collected these bags over one year. 


So take one big step for humankind: carry your own bags to the store.


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Mary Ellen Croteau, Chicago, IL - July 2005


Artists as well as protesters have been condemned for using the flag in protest of US policies, but business use it any way they want without censure. 

What could be more disrespectful to the flag than using it as underwear, socks, or using it as a sales hook?  Such use is also against U.S. rules regarding the flag.

United States Code, title 36, chapter 10, section 176:

(d)   The flag should never be used as wearing apparel

(f)    The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything

(i)    The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.  It should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.

(j)    No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.

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Mary Ellen Croteau - May 2005


Clearcut: Views From the Train

Clearcut: Views From the Trainis a pictorial commentary on the state of the continent’s forests using photographs she took on a train trip across the U.S. and Canada in August 2001.  A running strip of text accompanies the installation of 50 snapshots, describing the scenes she witnessed as well as other commentary heard and mused upon while on the trip.

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Mary Ellen Croteau - September 2004

oil paintings

American Landscapes

These paintings represent a view of America rarely visited by the myth makers.  It’s right there, but we have a tendency to look right past it.  It’s the place that doesn’t get pictured in National Geographic or written about in Time magazine and doesn’t get sung about in anthems.  It is the bizarre, mundane, ironic, incongruous U.S. that exists everywhere.  It almost always includes some combination of automobile culture, fast food and the ubiquitous cell phone towers. 

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