Reuse Artist and Educator Maria Araceli Francisco

As an art educator I spent a lot of time preparing my students’ art for display, filling out labels, choosing the right color of background paper and taking the time to hang the work that usually happened after school hours. During the month of May, the tables are turned, and the art educators of the Jersey City Public Schools have a chance to display their own art in the annual Teacher As Artist exhibition. The show invites the public and fellow educators to view the art works of the many talented teachers of Jersey City.

When I curated my first Teacher As Artist exhibit five years ago the educator who impressed and inspired me the most was Maria Araceli Francisco. That year she exhibited two beautifully hand crocheted dresses and wore a third crocheted dress to the artist reception. One dress was made mostly of white yarn with accents of grey; the other was a halter dress created with blue and light green yarns (pictured below). All three dresses, including the maroon one she wore, were accented with a crocheted flower. The skill and detail of the dresses were impressive and unlike any thing else exhibited that year.

Maria Araceli Francisco and one of her crochet dresses from the Teacher As Artist exhibit

Maria Araceli Francisco and one of her crochet dresses from the Teacher As Artist exhibit

Two years later, when the exhibition was held at LITM, Maria displayed a very dazzling and heavy mannequin bust covered in hundreds of vintage jewelry and beads called “Transformation”(pictured in the feature photo). Maria not only has a love for fashion but also a love for reuse. Her use of recycled materials extends beyond her personal art and into her classroom. This month she is also displaying student art at the Jersey City Board of Education offices located on Claremont Ave. One of the displays consists of numerous altered book sculptures created with reused books. This project is an excellent example of how Maria inspires her students’ creativity using recycled materials. I bet her students will never look at an ordinary book the same way again.

As this year’s Teacher As Artist exhibition approaches, I had a chance to talk to Maria about her artwork both in and out of the classroom.

How long have you been teaching art in the Jersey City Public Schools?

18 years

Where do you teach? What grades do you teach?

I am presently working as an Art Specialist for PS# 23 teaching Grades 3-8.

You exhibited three amazing crochet dresses at the Teacher As Artist exhibit. When did you start to crochet? 

I started my interest in crochet when I was 10 years old by watching my mother crocheting every day. Since I love fashion, I create crocheted dresses without using a pattern book. I usually feel the yarn, mix textures and I go from there.

Are your crochet items for sale?

I am currently working on Maria Simplyhandmade Winter Collection 2015. The focus will be baby items.

A crochet baby hat included in Maria SimplyHandmade Winter Collection 2015

A crochet baby hat included in Maria SimplyHandmade Winter Collection 2015

You made a dress out of recycled newspaper. What made you decide to use newspaper instead of yarn?

I have experimented with different materials like paper, vintage jewelry and beads as well. I damaged my wrist and could not crochet for some time.

A dress Maria Francisco created entirely out of newspapers

A dress Maria Francisco created entirely out of newspapers

In your personal art you reuse unwanted materials. How do you encourage reuse in your classroom?

One of the recent projects I taught my students is the “Altered Book Sculptures”. The books, dated from the 1930’s, were donated by the librarian. The students used a variety of ways to fold each book page. When they had finished folding all the pages, my students had to think of other ways to alter the book further and to make it personalized, telling a story. At the end, the result was a beautiful piece of 3D art. Priceless!

An "Altered Book Sculpture" created by one of Maria Francisco's art students

An “Altered Book Sculpture” created by one of Maria Francisco’s art students

You exhibited a mannequin bust covered in buttons. What inspired that piece?

In May 2013, I featured one of my most favorite pieces called “Transformation”(see featured photo). It is a mannequin filled with vintage jewelry pieces and beads. I found the mannequin in a dumpster behind the mall. It was too lovely to just leave there and so I had to find a way to bring it back to life. Friends and family donated broken pieces of jewelry, beads and buttons. This piece took me 2 years to finish.

Do you have any upcoming art exhibits? 

I am curating, along with fellow art specialist Heidi Curko, the Teacher As Artist exhibit at The Drawing Rooms. The exhibit is a place for all art specialists teaching in Jersey City to showcase their artwork.

Will you also be exhibiting art work?

Yes, I will be showing a purse entitled  “Reflection”, dedicated in memory of my beloved Auntie Lourdes (Tita Onding) who passed away last year and her love of purses and shopping. The second piece is entitled “Love”, a 11 x 14 inch frame with a heart collage of jewelry pieces. I hide a heart inside of everything I create because I have a birthmark in the shape of a heart and because everything I make comes from love.

"Reflection" created with vintage jewelry and buttons. Black, gold, and silver were used as a memorial to Maria Francisco's Auntie Lourdes.

“Reflection” created with vintage jewelry and buttons. Black, gold, and silver were used as a memorial to Maria Francisco’s Auntie Lourdes.

Visit Maria’s SimplyHandmade Facebook Page for more of her art.

The opening reception for the Teacher As Artist exhibit will be held on Thursday, May 7 from 5:00-7:00 pm at the Drawing Rooms, 180 Grand St. The exhibit will be on display through May 10.  Admission is free. For more information, visit

Top photos by Stephanie Romano. All other photos courtesy of Maria Araceli Francisco. 

Stephanie Romano

is an artist, mother, teacher, and writer who has made Jersey City her home for the last 15 years. She creates items from recycled vinyl signs and upcycled materials under the name TRAASH.