How Artist Stephanie Hongo Transforms Household Trash into Eco-Friendly Animal Masterpieces

Stephanie Hongo creates intricate sea creatures, realistic-looking jungle animals and other critters out of garbage ranging from old toothbrushes to retired hair dryers

Stephanie Hongo, artist known as Sugarfox
Photo: Shane Norton (2)

When trash sculptor Stephanie Hongo meets friends for drinks or dinner, it's not unusual for one of them to hand her shopping bags full of Tupperware lids, empty soap bottles, and even a Barbie leg or two.

"They're like, 'We saved this stuff for you,'" the 36-year-old from Southington, Connecticut, tells PEOPLE.

By now, she's used to neighbors, friends of friends and even strangers giving her their recyclable rejects. But Hongo doesn't need any more garbage. She has a heaping collection of her own at home. "You don't need to be a dumpster diver to do this," she says. "Trash is everywhere."

And for Hongo, where there is trash, there is art. Since 2017, Hongo, who's known as Sugarfox on social media, has crafted intricate sea creatures, realistic-looking jungle animals and other critters out of everything from plastic forks (perfect for owls' feathers, says Hongo) to plastic tubing (which make for lifelike snouts) as well as a hair dryer, a purse, a tooth brush, and even a hair straightener.

yondu, completed 2017 Stephanie Hongo AKA SugarFox's first project artist in CT using scrap materials; Maple (giraffe) completed in October, 2021 stephanie hongo, artist known as Sugar fox
Sugarfox (2)

Starting with her first piece – a blue deer named Yandoo that she fashioned out of odds and ends laying around her condo, which she screwed together and spray painted in a makeshift basement art studio – she's gone on to create more than 160 trash sculptures.

In the process, she's earned a robust following on social media.

"I feel very fortunate," says Hongo, who loves making a living as an artist.

Though she doesn't consider herself a true eco-artist, she hopes she's inspiring others to reuse items that usually end up in landfills.

"I care about our environment," says Hongo. "The upcycling aspect of it is a lovely byproduct."

But for her, she says, "the art comes first."

stephanie hongo, artist known as Sugarfox at her home in CT uses scrap materials 2021
Stephanie Hongo. Shane Norton

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It always has. Growing up in a "family of creators," she says - her woodworking dad built their furniture and her mom sewed their Halloween costumes - it came as no surprise that Hongo found her calling as an artist.

After majoring in illustration in college, she and her equally artsy twin sister began working as sign artists at Trader Joe's.

Then, in the summer of 2017, her career took a sharp right turn when she stumbled upon the work of Portuguese mural artist Bordalo II, who crafts large installations out of trash.

Roux (fox) completed completed in June 2021 stephanie hongo, known as Sugarfox CT artist using scrap materials 2021; Bodhi (lion) completed in September 2021
Sugarfox (2)

"I was like, 'I could do that,'" she recalls.

Since she was trapped for cash at the time, she says she "tried to find anything that I was going to throw away. And using scraps of wood her dad left behind from a project, she went to work making Yandoo and put it on Facebook.

"The response was overwhelmingly positive," she says. "I thought, I need to keep doing this."

Thus began her career as a trash sculptor.

Before starting each project, Hongo says she figures out exactly what pieces of scrap metal, tubing and plastics she'll need to transform the pile of junk on her worktable into something fantastic, like a majestic octopus rocketing through the coral or a cuddly koala hugging a tree.

"I think, 'What would the skull of an elephant look like? Where would the eyes fall in relation to the mouth?' " she says. "It's a million moving things at one time, but somehow it eventually ends up cohesive."

Since her funky creations sell on Instagram at prices starting at $400, she's been fortunate enough to make trash sculpting her full-time career.

"It's so much more than I ever expected," she says.

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