Leah Hughes of Hamilton named winner of Saica’s ‘Sustainable Box Contest’

Saica Group, a leading manufacturer of recycled paper for corrugated board, celebrated its recent move to Hamilton and a commitment to sustainability with the inaugural “Sustainable Box Contest.”

“The creativity we saw was amazing ― I am really impressed,” said Akin Önder, general manager, Saica U.S. “The contest gave us a chance to connect with the community we’re joining here in the U.S. and demonstrated how our products can be reused and repurposed.”

The Hamilton location is the company’s first facility in North America, and when the winners were announced recently, it seems only fitting that one of the contest winners, Leah Hughes, is from Hamilton.

Entrants were encouraged to show the creative ways that a cardboard box could be repurposed. Hughes won for her depiction of a cicada, remembering the 17-year cicada invasion that happened in Ohio last summer.

Other winners in the contest included Abbie Warrick from Sumter, South Carolina, who won for her cardboard carrying case, and Ford Clark of Cincinnati, who created a “Sing the Saica City” entry, which features a skyline of Cincinnati made of cardboard.

Each winner received a $500 cash prize, except for Clark, who could not accept the award due to his employer’s rules. Instead, Saica made a donation to the Little Miami Conservancy. The entries will be displayed at Saica’s Hamilton plant. For more information about Saica, go to usa.saica.com/en/.

We caught up with Hughes in a Q & A to find out more about her work. To connect with Hughes online, visit lrhughesstudio.weebly.com, and find her on Instagram at LRHughesStudio.

Q: Tell us about yourself.

Leah Hughes: I grew up here in Hamilton with my Mom, my brother, Cinton, and my twin sister, Ivy. I graduated from Hamilton High School in 2001. Then, I graduated from Miami University in Oxford with a BFA in painting and sculpture in 2007. Being an artist is all I’ve ever really wanted to do, but it has become more of a hobby as I’ve become a mother. But I feel like it’s my first love and that I still have time to get my work out in the world. Art, drawing, painting, creating is something I’ve been able to share with my two daughters, Kaylee and Olivia.

Q: I understand you recently were promoted with the City of Hamilton. What job do you do and what do you enjoy the most about your work?

A: I work for the IT department doing application support. My position allows me a lot of creativity and problem solving, which I enjoy.

Q: We have heard your cardboard work is fantastic. How did you get started working with cardboard?

A: I started working with cardboard because I was young, and I worked in food service, and we were constantly throwing out tons of cardboard. I started painting still life’s including cardboard boxes. This may have been in about 2010. These were still life’s with cardboard boxes as the subject. For instance, a cardboard box with a small figure standing inside it. A small cardboard box with a window cut in it with a bird sitting inside it. Then, that morphed into created work inside of boxes that could be shipped and was its own box as well as a piece of art. And now I’ve broken away from the “box,” making whatever I want with no shape constraints.

Q: What inspires your work?

A: My cardboard artwork is really driven by the idea of turning the mundane or disposable into something precious.

Q: Is cardboard art a popular art form? What can you teach us about what can be done with cardboard?

A: I am aware of a few artists who work in cardboard. Some are really incredible. Will it surpass more traditional art, unlikely. Sustainable art is becoming more popular as people and artists become more aware of their carbon footprint.

Q: You won for the creation of a cicada. How did you choose that as something you wanted to create for the contest?

A: We had just come out of the Summer of Cicadas in 2021, so it seemed like a timely choice of subject. I made it for the “Boom” show for Art Space, which was hosted at the Fitton Center. I found out about the Saica contest after the show closed.

Q: Can you walk us through the process of how you made it and what steps you took?

A: I always start the same way, by cutting apart cardboard boxes I’ve saved, and then, cutting those into long strips about an inch and a half wide. This means every piece of cardboard that goes into any piece is hand formed by me. I’ve touched and manipulated every piece with care. I get a general idea of the size and shape I want to start with, and I start building, making sure to have plenty of hot glue sticks. This imprecise form of measurement means sometimes things turn out much larger than anticipated.

Q: Why did you want to enter this contest?

A: A co-worker sent me the information about the Saica call for entries. It seemed like the perfect fit for me, so I entered.

Q: What are some of the other cardboard pieces you’ve created?

A: I have a few cardboard-mounted heads at North Second Tap and Bottle Shop. Those are some of my first real cardboard pieces. Those three were originally hung in the Almond Sisters Bakery as a temporary display. I have an octopus, a tiger and an elk at Kruger and Hodges, the law firm. I recently finished a large Lemon Grenade for the graphic design company LemonGrenade Creative in downtown Hamilton. I’ve done a number of other pieces like Puff the Magic Dragon for Art Space, when they hosted Peter Yarrow. I did an elephant head for the Fitton Center’s Biennial Member Show that won second place a few years ago. I’ve also made many pieces that have never seen the real world.

Q: What are you proudest of as far as what you’ve been able to accomplish?

A: As far as my art is concerned, I don’t think I’ve had my proudest moment yet. I’m still hopeful.

Q: Were you surprised by the win? What did you think about some of the other cardboard entries?

A: I assumed I had not won, thinking that they would announce the winners around November. I had not heard anything. So, I was surprised to find I was one of the chosen winners in January. I was impressed by the varying ranges of ages of the participants. I only saw the other two selected works in photos but felt very pleased for them both.

Q: Are you working on any cardboard projects now?

A: I am not. I have an ongoing oil painting series that I am currently working on.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A: I recently met a lovely woman named Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, who has been working to start an women’s-centered art group in Hamilton, “Women’s Art Club of Hamilton.” I think she’s still information gathering, but I’m getting really excited at the potential of this project.

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