Two by two

Muir Hughes unveils fruits of her ambitious artistic challenge

Muir Hughes, Animal Queen

Muir Hughes, Animal Queen

Photo By Josh mills

There are at least 1,000 animals in me. They have battle wounds, cravings and misshapen torsos. They are my jesters. They are my hope. They are all of me and all of you. I’m setting them free.—Muir Hughes

There are artists putting on art shows in Chico, and then there is what Muir Hughes has been up to. I don’t want to oversell it too much, but whether or not you are moved by the art she’s created for her 1,000 Animals and Me exhibit at RAYRAY Gallery (opening Friday, July 2), it’s impossible not to be impressed with, even inspired by, the endeavor.

The show is exactly what the title suggests: Hughes the artist, plus 1,000 handmade, one-of-a-kind stuffed animals (or monsters, as they’ve been called).

Incredibly, she started the process just this past April, giving herself only 2 1/2 months to complete her task, while abiding by a short list of self-imposed guidelines: “Make 1,000 animals. Use recycled materials. Include elements of design from the last 10 years. Create new designs. Work on animals every day. Maintain an average of 15 per day. Try to sell all of them.”

The count was at 630 (plus 100 or so in progress) on June 2, when I visited the monster-making factory in the south Chico home Hughes shares with her husband, Josh Mills (local photographer and long-time fixture at The Bookstore in downtown Chico) and their 10-year-old son Ender and daughter Seven, who is, fittingly, 7 years old.

Hughes is well known in Chico as one of the founding members of the Chikoko design/performance collective, and her and Mills’ two-story home is, as you might imagine, overstuffed with art, books and art-making supplies.

“Art is what feeds me and helps me deal with life,” Hughes said as we sat down at a table in her living room.

“Fiber arts and textiles aren’t given the same credence [as other art forms],” Hughes explained, saying she is drawn to craft-making for its accessibility as the “common persons’ medium.”

“I like how universal dolls and animals are. It’s something all cultures and societies have produced and created.” (“I love it because there’s animals all over the house,” adds Seven, flitting from room to room.)

That universal appeal, plus the kooky nature of her designs, is what drew this newspaper to approach Hughes in January about using her creations (which she was selling each week at the Saturday Farmers’ Market) in the marketing campaign for the Chico News & Review-sponsored CAMMIES music series. Hughes said that, while that added exposure brought attention to her designs, she actually had decided to stop making and selling the creatures at the market shortly after being approached by the CN&R.

The circumstances that led to the big project actually came together in a fairly serendipitous way.

“It was one of those bolt-of-lightening experiences,” Hughes said. While visiting Petaluma with her family, Hughes was bowled over by a place called the Seed Bank, a store (housed in an actual former bank building) filled with more than 1,000 varieties of heirloom seeds.

“It was inspirational to me,” Hughes said about the notion of someone making a living by making seeds, and the enormity of the operation.

“[And] I wanted to know what something big would look like.”

So, she decided to put her unique skill set to use on something similarly huge.

“I feel that everything I do is about me. Sometimes [it] can represent me personally and sometimes people I know,” Hughes said. “I feel like this [project] gives me and other people who relate to this an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, but with love.”

When I asked, “What if you don’t finish?” her earnest reply was: “That’s not even a possibility in my mind. I don’t know how, but it’s going to happen.”

And, sure enough, four weeks later, the title of the June 28 entry on Hughes’ blog documenting the process ( is “1,009.” But while it appears she’s accomplished her mission, days before opening night the work is still not over. There is, of course, the daunting process of installing more than 1,000 pieces of art, plus, as if to add insanity to the monster madness, Hughes is actually naming each creation. “I am about to pull my hair out,” she admits in an e-mail.

When there were still 90 animals to go, Hughes posted this well-chosen quote from Melville’s Moby Dick on her blog: “But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”

I’m guessing she’ll end up with her head above water when all is said and done. And with an average selling price of only $25 per piece, it’s the city of Chico that will soon likely be deluged with animals.