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Waste not: One artist’s passion for recycled art

Daisy Perez sits at a table in Julie’s Coffeehouse in Lake Villa. Behind her, the walls are adorned with original artwork she’s created.

One wall is dominated by panels covered in hundreds of bottle caps of various sizes, spiraling outward and flowing into different patterns and colors. That was a community project, she says; the bottle caps were collected by members of the community, friends and her own family who knew she was working on it. For her, the coffeehouse is not just a place to socialize; it is her art studio. 

In a pair of paint-spattered overalls, her hair pulled back with an old bandana, the Antioch resident even looks the part of an artist at work. Instead of paint and brush, however, her materials today are a pair of scissors and a large stack of plastic bags, which she is methodically cutting into strips for her next project.

“I’m recycling plastic bags [and] I’m gonna turn them into rope,” she says, reaching down for another bag. “There’s some chairs outside with holes in the bottom, so I’m just gonna weave new covers and just fix them because they’re cheaper and it’s one of those things – I’ve always wanted to do it.”

Wherever Perez goes, she says her brain is always working, always crafting, scouring over what many people would consider trash and determining how it can be transformed from refuse to artwork. It is clear, even at a table at the coffee shop, that Perez’s brain is constantly churning: Her fingers tinker nimbly with bits of dried wax as she speaks – the artist who never stops creating.

Under Perez’s artistic eye, empty cereal snack pack boxes become miniature paintings; milk jugs mutate into igloos. Where one might see an empty tea box destined for the recycling bin, Perez sees a canvas to paint glow-in-the-dark astronauts for a nursery room mobile. Discarded wine bottles become fairy lanterns or centerpieces. 

“But it’s always been like, what can I use out of my house or that people don’t want to use to show them that we can use this stuff,” she says. “Don’t waste it. It’s one of those things that’s always been stuck in my head. How can I turn this glass — this glass is gonna be in a landfill for 150 years, how can I use it? I don’t want to put a glass in a landfill and my grandson finds it and says, Grandma why did you do this? Didn’t you know this was gonna be here for 150 years? So that’s how my brain works.”

This philosophy is both a blessing and a curse, she says. On one hand, she never has a shortage of ideas for her next project and the supplies needed to create it; on the other, she has a garage full of material just waiting to be repurposed. 

After 12 years in a nine-to-five job, Perez returned to her passion and devoted herself to nurturing the inner artist, both in herself and in the people who enroll in the art classes she teaches. She teaches both kids and adults in a casual, comfortable setting during which she emphasizes her 23 guidelines to being an artist, one of which is maintaining a positive atmosphere. 

“I say ‘positive, positive, positive’,” she says. “They’re not allowed to say anything negative. You can’t look at your neighbor and say, ‘Wow, your painting is awful.’ You can’t look at your own painting and say, ‘Wow, it’s awful.’ You can say, ‘Wow, your painting is really beautiful’ or ‘Hey, I’m doing better than I thought.’ What you have to realize is you’re just beginning.”

While a portion of her teaching is devoted to helping adults rediscover their love of creating, the other part of it is fostering that love in children who are just beginning to tap into their artistic side. Perez says she tries to “fill in the gap” for children who may not have the opportunity to create art through other programs or venues. 

“There’s not a lot of [art programs] in schools anymore,” she says. “But I think there’s a lot of things that the kids are missing out on that parents don’t realize. Like, the whole fingers dexterity and doing things with your hands. I see it sometimes with the kids I work with. They don’t know how to do things with their hands. They’re very limited. So they come to my class and I try to make sure. They’ll ask me, ‘What do I do with this?’ Well, you have to figure it out. You’re not here for me to tell you what to do. You’re here to make your brain work and be creative and just do it.”

Perez implements the simplest of art materials – pipe cleaners, sidewalk chalk, clay – to achieve the maximum learning experiences for her younger students who are too busy having fun creating to realize they’re actually learning something in the process.

Regardless of their age or skill level, Perez helps her students step outside of their comfort zone and realize the purpose of art is not the finished product but the internal journey they go through while creating. 

“It’s a matter of understanding that you’re making an original piece of artwork and everyone makes artwork differently,” she says. “You have to understand how human you are and be accepting of it. That’s the hardest part for a lot of people. You have to be able to accept yourself and instead of worrying about what you’re not doing right, realize you’re brave enough to actually be doing something that isn’t inside your usual everyday thing.”

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