Thursday, January 29, 2009

Emanuel Aguilar Rises Up Out of the Ashes

Emanuel Aguilar is a senior at Columbia College Chicago. He will graduate with an undergraduate degree in fine art and a minor in Marketing and Communications at the end of this year. Emanuel met Kevin Brown during Semester in Florence, one of Columbia College’s study abroad programs, who told him about a project that needed an artist to create something using ashtrays. Kevin didn’t have many details, but Emanuel was intrigued and said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” A month passed before he heard from Kevin again. He showed Emanuel the materials: boxes and boxes of ashtrays, some clean, some not. The project was a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the smoking ban in Chicago with the Respiratory Health Association who asked Larry Minsky, faculty in Columbia’s Marketing and Communications Department, to find a student who would want to make something beautiful from the ashtrays. Larry Minsky has worked on a number of exciting student collaborations with the Respiratory Health Association over the years.

Right after the ban on smoking, the Respiratory Health Association put out a call for ashtrays. There were some press hits that said “What do you do with ashtrays? You create art.” This idea interested the association and they decided to turn this into an idea for local artists.

“I remember looking at the ashtrays and thinking that there was nothing I could do that wasn’t going to be kitchsy,” says Emanuel. “Every choice seemed too obvious: stack the ashtrays, glue them together. I had to think about what would I do to just eliminate their original purpose…and that was to crush them. So we crushed them. All of them.”

Some of them were crushed down to sand and powder. The creative team, Emanuel, Vincent Finazzo and Eric Siegel, had buckets and buckets of smashed ashtrays to work with. There were two amber shades and a clear glass. At this point in the process there were no longer any ashtrays, just glass. The color of the glass was alluring and they decided to light it and make a display that would emphasize the shards. They decided on a minimal look in order to refrain from referencing the ashtrays and smoking as much as possible. They wanted people to have an open-ended experience.

"We wanted people to look at the shards as if the glass was part of some lost civilization, like artifacts from an archeological dig," said Emanuel. "We called the piece, 'The Phoenix.' We liked the fact that we came up with a mythological name to represent all that rises up out of the ashes as a symbol of hope."

The finished piece is now on display at The Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. Emanuel has a blog and an upcoming online magzine called His blog is

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