THE TWELVE DAYS OF GLUING

INSIDE THE PASSION AND STRUGGLE OF PARTICIPATING IN THE WORLD’S GREATEST HOLIDAY WREATH EXHIBITION

A circular holiday wreath made of colorful plastic bottle caps that are arranged in concentric circles, hanging on a plain white wall
“CAP IT: END SINGLE USE PLASTIC”, dimensions variable, approximately 20" x 20" x 4", plastic bottle caps, by Elizabeth Meggs (photo courtesy the author)

For 39 years, the New York City Parks Department has held an annual exhibition titled “Wreath Interpretations” at the Arsenal Gallery. Every year, New York City’s most creative artists, designers, and individuals pull out all the stops as they vie for a spot in this highly cutthroat and competitive juried exhibit. One might consider this exhibit to be the Olympics of holiday wreath-making, though the passion and competitive spirit channeled by the participants surely surpasses that of ordinary Olympic athletes. If you’ve ever seen the films “Best In Show” or “Strictly Ballroom”, you might have a sense of the ecstatic competitive passion that this apex of New York City creative contests engenders!

It’s fitting that the “Wreath Interpretations” exhibition is held at the Arsenal at Central Park and Fifth Avenue, next to the Central Park Zoo. This building dates back to as early as 1847, and looks like a medieval fortress. Not only has the building been used as an actual arsenal to store munitions; it has also held a dinosaur bone reconstruction studio; an early version of the American Museum of Natural History; a menagerie of caged animals loaned by P. T. Barnum, financier August Belmont, and Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman; a weather bureau; the Parks Department’s headquarters; and an art gallery. A secret passage and underground spring were discovered during a reconstruction of the building in the 1920s. WPA murals were painted in the lobby of the Arsenal in the 1930s. Most significantly, it has housed the “Wreath Interpretations” exhibitions for 39 years!

Even though I’ve been fortunate to have three wreaths accepted in past years, I’ve also been rejected more times than I’m willing to admit, when I have submitted to this annual exhibit.

I’d been contemplating what I might submit as a proposed wreath for many long months through the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the years, I have observed that wreaths relating to nature and environmental conservation, wreaths using unexpected or unusual materials, and wreaths that are as quirky as humanly possible seem to make the cut. While I was at home more during the pandemic’s lockdown, I became acutely aware of the number of single use plastic containers that I was using for everyday products such as pet supplies, soap, toiletries, and food. Each container had a brightly colored plastic cap. These caps looked beautiful to me! Immediately, I realized that the caps might have wreath-making potential, so I began saving the bottle caps that were big and had the brightest colors.

You might recognize some of the caps I saved from your own single-use plastic consumption. My cats’ treats came in a container with a beautiful extra-large bright orange plastic cap. Their kitty litter had a bright red top. My cat Katie Frances, who was dying of terminal gastrointestinal lymphoma, had to take Miralax — and that has one of the prettiest deep magenta plastic caps one can possibly find. Woolite has the loveliest pink cap. I’m fond of yellow mustard caps and green decaf instant coffee lids. My bottle of soy sauce had an especially vibrant green plastic cap. Vitamin bottles tend to have colorful and glossy caps. Dish detergent and shampoo and peanut butter caps are glorious! It’s astounding how quickly I was able to save enough caps to make a wreath. Before I knew it, I had more plastic caps than I could shake a stick at!

When it was time to submit my proposal, I created a hypothetical composition of bottle caps on my kitchen table. I took a photo to explain my idea, and did some research about single-use plastic. I was shocked to find out that, according to Plastic Oceans, 10 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year, less than 9% of all plastic gets recycled, and there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050.

A horizontal painted colorful composition of 12 squares in a grid, with each square containing concentric circles, by artist Wassily Kandinsky.
“Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles”, by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913, watercolor, gouache and crayon on paper, 9.4" x 12.4". This image is in the public domain.

Visually, I felt inspired by the concentric colorful circles found in the 1913 watercolor, gouache and crayon painting “Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles”, by Wassily Kandinsky. I knew that the wreath could and should be colorful and fun to look at, but how would it convey my message? I determined that the wreath could demonstrate the over-abundance of single use plastic bottles, once viewers realized that all of these caps came from one person’s basic usage over a short period of time. I knew my title would make the message clear, so I named the wreath “CAP IT: END SINGLE USE PLASTIC.”

I was thrilled to receive an email that my wreath proposal was accepted! Immediately, I began purchasing materials to realize the concept. I bought an 18" masonite “Floral Ring by Ashland™” wreath form from a craft supply store. I’ve used this kind of wreath form in the past, and knew it to be sturdy and versatile. Like romantic relationships, a wreath is NOTHING without a strong base! However, I knew that I needed a wider base in order to have two rows of plastic caps. I scoured art supply stores looking for a suitable substrate to add to the masonite form, and ended up selecting a lightweight yet strong, UV-stable, 20" by 30" corrugated polypropylene panel, which basically looks like white corrugated plastic.

Carefully placing the bottle caps exactly as they’d be installed on the wreath, I was able to make precise measurements for the base. I photographed the caps in their final layout, so that I could remember exactly how to glue them onto the base when the time arrived. I used my brass compass with an extender to draw two concentric circles on the back of the corrugated panel. Then, I slowly and patiently cut out the larger wreath base by hand, using a new blade in my X-ACTO® knife. My hand felt like it had been stung by one million rabid jellyfish after all of this knife cutting, but my spirit felt relieved to have a beautiful and precise white plastic base.

I looped OOK picture-hanging wire, capable of supporting 10–30 pounds of weight, through two holes at the top of the masonite “Floral Ring by Ashland™” wreath base, to create a strong loop from which to hang the wreath in the gallery. I ran the wire through the holes multiple times, and twisted these wires together for sturdiness.

I was ready to glue the two parts of the base together. I used Gorilla Glue Super Glue. This glue worked like a dream. Within 45 seconds, the two major wreath support parts were bonded.

Because Gorilla Glue Super Glue has always been so effective, I planned to use it to glue all of the bottle caps together and onto the wreath. Before the caps could be glued onto the base, I had to glue each colorful concentric section of 2–3 caps together. So, I began.

Immediately, I encountered major production problems. Some of plastic caps were not sticking to one another, even with the strongest super glue possible!!! I’d thought this glue could glue ANYTHING. A quick look at the fine print on the Gorilla Glue package revealed my problem. It said: “*Not recommended for use on polyethylene or polypropylene plastic or similar materials.”

I was hit by a ton of bricks with the realization that these plastics from our everyday lives are so synthetic that not even super glue works on them. Panicked, I had visions of not being able to complete the wreath! I imagined trying to drill holes in the caps and use metal screws to bolt them onto the wreath, but that didn’t seem like a good solution because it would probably be incredibly difficult (for me) to drill plastic caps. Suddenly, I was thrust into despair, picturing the wreath taking several all-nighters of work to assemble, or worse, falling apart completely.

What else could I do at this point but call the Gorilla Glue hotline? I spoke with a very helpful customer service representative named Linda, who assuaged my panic. She told me that I didn’t need to worry about the plastic caps that already did stick using Gorilla Glue — they’d remain stuck. She told me that only plastic caps containing polyethylene or polypropylene would be impossible to glue with the Gorilla Glue Super Glue. At least the caps that had already stuck were secure.

At this point I had to venture out, masked, to the art supply and hardware stores, in search of glue that would work. I bought Duco Plastic & Model Cement, Loctite Plastics Bonding System, Loctite Quick Set Epoxy, and Plasti-ZAP.

I decided to do a test run of these four glues. I also included the Gorilla Glue Super Glue in my tests, just out of curiosity. So, I glued extra bottle caps to a spare piece of corrugated plastic, making note of what glue of the five glues I was testing had been used on what cap.

While I’m sure Duco Plastic & Model Cement is awesome for actual plastic models, it became clear it was not the right glue for this project, because there was zero bonding, even after clamping the parts together over time.

I should add that the heat system where I live stopped working. It was 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside, too, so I couldn’t keep the windows open for ventilation. The glue fumes were starting to get strong, and I’d just gotten started with my basic glue tests. Also, it was getting to be late, so I put on my warmest plaid flannel pajamas.

In my glue tests, the Loctite Plastics Bonding System worked incredibly well. It worked SO well that there was no wiggle room for positioning because the items bonded immediately and forcefully. One must get it right the first time! It also worked well at gluing my fingers together. On my left hand, my middle finger and ring finger were accidentally completely glued together. Alone and frozen in my heatless apartment, unable to unstick my fingers, I said out loud, to no one, “Two Tears In A Bucket, Motherf*#% it.” This was helpful to say, and was directly inspired by the real life character Lady Chablis, from one of my favorite books, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by my favorite living author, John Berendt.

I tried using 100% acetone (nail polish remover) to dissolve the tight bond between my fingers. It sort of worked, slightly. I had to slowly work my fingers apart, millimeter by millimeter, while soaking them in acetone. Of course, the nail polish remover stench added to the strong glue fumes. After about 30 minutes, my fingers were separated, and I got back to work.

I started gluing the individual cap sections together with the Loctite Plastics Bonding System, because I had no question that it worked. It worked so well that I believe I could glue a helicopter to a grizzly bear and they would be bonded forever. Perhaps I should try the Loctite Plastics Bonding System on future boyfriends, to see if it might lead to decent commitment. Unfortunately, I’d only been allowed to buy eight tiny packages of this. I’m not sure why, but I can only assume that the chemicals involved could be used for nefarious purposes.

Quickly exhausting my supply of the Loctite Plastics Bonding System, I started to panic again. Surely the other glues would not be as effective. I gave Plasti-ZAP a test run. At first, the plastic caps remained unbonded. Panic set in! However, I realized that some things take time, like aging fine wine or losing the 19 pounds you gained during the pandemic’s lockdown in 2020, so I decided to see if the Plasti-ZAP glue simply needed time to cure. I’m so glad I was patient, because once this glue had a little time, it was as effective and strong as the Loctite Plastics Bonding System! I felt such a sense of relief and euphoria, although this feeling could have been from the fumes from the five glues plus the nail polish remover along with the freezing temperatures.

I proceeded with gluing the remaining circular cap segments together with Plastic-ZAP, full of gratitude that the glue worked. My eyes burned, and I had to hold each section together for what seemed like forever until it bonded. I accidentally glued the wreath to my kitchen table. This is almost unmentionable, and I still need advice on getting the glue off of the surface of the table.

The night grew long, and I was weary. I began to think about aging and mortality while gluing. I pondered the tedium that Tibetan monks endure while making mandalas out of colored sand. I had turned my television on to make it seem less lonely. A disturbing infomercial came on, but I couldn’t move to change the channel because I was stuck holding bottle caps together while the glue cured. Was I having a glue hallucination? Possibly.

What felt like several weeks went by, but eventually I completed the gluing of the wreath. I couldn’t believe I was finished! This wreath had been the most challenging wreath I’d ever made. I only hope it does not come completely apart in the gallery. If so, I will remind myself of the words of the Lady Chablis. And hopefully by then I will be legally allowed to buy more Loctite Plastics Bonding System to repair the wreath.

On Monday, November 29, 2021, I felt relieved to deliver the wreath to the Arsenal. A strange but nice-seeming man saw the wreath as I was going in, and he said, “That’s cool.”

It may be the glue fumes talking, but I believe the quirky wreath competition is a testament to the human spirit and the tenacity of New Yorkers to find and fight for joy, fun, beauty, and meaning, even after enduring the most horrific circumstances. This matters. I’ve been here through September 11, Hurricane Sandy, and the deadly pandemic that has decimated our population, with (at the time of this writing) one out of every 239 New Yorkers having died of Covid.

The holiday season can be a time of celebration, decorations such as joyful wreaths, and fun. Why not? Life can be very short, sometimes unexpectedly short. It means so much to be part of the wreath exhibit, especially in this year after so much loss. I especially love that the New York City Parks Departments’ wreath exhibit falls at the same time as the Miami Art Basel art fair, where the commercial gallery art world pushes art as luxury goods. The wreath exhibit is the antithesis of the art fairs, because it is municipal, non-commercial, and unpretentious.

It is my hope that my wreath will be an exuberant expression of color, a reminder of the over-abundance of single use plastic, and helps keep your holiday spirits bright.

MAY THE WREATH BE WITH YOU!

A woman with brown hair, wearing a purple coat, holds a colorful holiday wreath made of plastic bottle caps in front of a building that looks like a medieval fortress.
Artist Elizabeth Meggs holding the “CAP IT: END SINGLE USE PLASTIC” holiday wreath in front of the Arsenal at Central Park and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Photo courtesy the author.

“Wreath Interpretations” runs from December 2, 2021 — January 6, 2022, at the Arsenal Gallery.

The Arsenal Gallery is located at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue inside Central Park, Third Floor of the Arsenal Building. Gallery hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. (Closed municipal holidays.) Admission is free. For further information please call (212) 360–8163.

Know Before You Go

As a precaution due to COVID-19, several new policies are being implemented to keep visitors to the Arsenal Gallery safe. To enter the gallery, COVID-19 vaccinations are required for those who are eligible, and mask-wearing is required for all. Guests will be required to sign in, and groups of five or more people can call (212) 360–8114 or email artandantiquities@parks.nyc.gov to pre-register.

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Elizabeth Meggs

Elizabeth Meggs

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Elizabeth Meggs is a Brooklyn-based artist, designer, and writer. BFA: Virginia Commonwealth University; MFA: Pratt Institute