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Meet the Artist Behind These Gorgeous Eco-friendly Gifts

by Sandra Y. Lee on 18 Apr, 2019

Still searching for a great Mother’s Day gift? Why not give to both Mom and Mother Earth? These beautiful art blocks and other eco-friendly gifts are handmade by Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes of MKC Photography from salvaged wood and discarded books. 

“Leaping off a cliff…” These are the words Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes uses to describe her decision to quit the safety of her job as a college librarian and fly solo as an artist. She was pregnant with her first child at the time, and it was one of the best decisions of her life. 

Working from home gave Michelle the flexibility to be there for her two boys. They, in turn, were the inspiration for her popular art blocks. Having little ones around the house made her think about ways to showcase her photography without using heavy frames and glass that might shatter. Her genius solution: mount the photos on reclaimed wood blocks covered with pages from discarded books. (At last, she’d found a use for all those books she’d saved from the recycling bin when she worked as a librarian!)


eco-friendly gifts

“Bluebells” Art Block, 5"x5", $41*. Free shipping. Handmade in USA.


“We still get our wood from word of mouth,” says Michelle. “Friends who are remodeling will ask, ‘Do you want the old cabinets?’” The same goes for the paper: “I’m no longer a librarian, but I have friends on the inside who let me know when there are beautiful titles that are being purged. It’s a nice thing to keep all that out of the landfill.” 

eco-friendly gifts

“Blossoms” Photo/Memo Holder, $29*. Free shipping. Handmade in USA.


Michelle’s ability to find value in old things can be seen even in how she goes about her work. She shoots digitally through lenses taken apart from antique cameras, including ones passed down from her grandfather and great aunt. The layering of the lenses give the images a painterly effect. Then she uses a computer to digitally cut out images that she’s photographed and combines them “until they say something to me.”


eco-friendly gifts

“Poppies” Keychain/Purse Charm, $25*. Free shipping. Handmade in USA.


These days, Michelle works from a studio in her backyard and her business has expanded to include other handmade, eco-friendly wares, such as photo/memo holders, keychain/purse charms, and ornaments. They all feature her original photo-based art. “It sounds dorky, but I look forward to work every day,” she says. “I’ve created this whole line of income, this job, that didn’t exist before. It’s mind blowing.”

Read on to discover what inspires Michelle and shop the story below:


Q. Why should we support local artisans and buy more products made in America?

“More often than not, you can see the individuals, read about them, get to know about them. Your neighbors, creatives in the area — these are the actual people who are benefiting from your support.”


Q. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your bestselling artwork, “Before We Met”?

“The stories that people have shared with me about why they picked this particular piece is very touching. People buy it for their kids or partners. One woman bought it for a child she was adopting. 

eco-friendly gifts

“Before We Met” Art Block, 5"x5", $41*. Free shipping. Handmade in USA.


I have to give my oldest son credit for it. One day he brought home a kindergarten collage project. It didn’t have writing on it, but it had a sky, a moon, an interesting colored sky, and clouds at the bottom. He had made it for a girl that he liked. Her name was Lucy and he likes the Beatles, so he had diamonds in the sky. I looked at it and thought, “Oh, I love this.”


Q. What has been your biggest challenge?

“Knowing when to stop working. When you’re the sole proprietor, it’s hard not to let it take up every hour. That’s why building a separate studio space was so important. Even now, I have to remind myself, “Okay, stop. Day’s done. You don’t have to answer that email.”

eco-friendly gifts

“Fly” Art Block, 5"x5", $41*. Free shipping. Handmade in USA.


Q. What’s your advice for others who want to make the leap?

“If you keep holding back until everything is perfectly lined up, it’ll never happen. Have a plan; then go for it. It’s not going to be perfect and that’s okay. You’ll learn as you go.”

You’ll find more unique, eco-friendly gift ideas featuring Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes’ whimsical, joyful artwork at her AnytownUSA shop. Then, in honor of Earth Day, check out our entire American-made Eco-Friendly Collection — because what’s good for the environment is good for your shopping too!

*All prices listed are before shipping and taxes.


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Have you heard our fun, informative podcast, The American Made Marketplace? You can listen to this week’s episode, “American Words Matter,” on our website, iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, and Google Play. Then subscribe for free, so you don’t miss an episode!

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