A Splash of Ash: Hoysted applies a cigarette-and-ash-based dye to watercolor paper.
A Splash of Ash: Hoysted applies a cigarette-and-ash-based dye to watercolor paper. Credit: Charles Steck

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Like many people who try to drop the cigarette habit, Jackie Hoysted was a routine quitter. Over and over, the Gaithersburg-based artist crumpled half-packs and tried nicotine gum, patches, and lozenges. And, over and over, she eventually slipped back to her Benson & Hedges 100’s.

Hoysted, 45, started smoking in her 20s. She smoked 15 or 20 cigarettes a day—and more with booze. “If there was a drink in my hand, the 20 could go up to 30 or 40,” she says, her voice deep and mellowed with nicotine, her accent native Irish.

Earlier this year Hoysted decided to push quitting a step further. In June, she started “Ashes to Ashes,” a 13-month-long blog and visual arts project on the psychology of smoking and quitting, with herself as the subject. On July 8—with four smokes left in the pack—she went cold turkey and began recording what happened next.

“I could not do it by myself,” Hoysted says of quitting. “So I figured, I never failed if I set a professional goal. By producing the blog and announcing a project, it’s a professional goal I can’t go back on.”

Much of Hoysted’s blog is dedicated to descriptions of nicotine withdrawal and the overwhelming desire to smoke. For the art portion of the project, Hoysted sprays white watercolor paper with a dye made of cigarettes in water; she then attacks the mess with the ashes and butts of smoked cigarettes she collected before she quit and sears the edges of the paper with her blue Bic lighter. The smoke art is a visual representation of a smoker’s polluted body. “It’s a metaphor,” Hoysted says. “What have I done to myself? You smoke these things. What are you doing to your insides?”

The first week was hell, Hoysted says; withdrawal symptoms often hampered her ability to work. The two pieces she did complete are included in the “Wall Mountables” exhibition at the District of Columbia Arts Center. Since then, Hoysted has created six similar pieces using burned and dyed paper; in the future, she plans to use cigarettes and butts to create three-dimensional pieces.

With more than a year left in the project, Hoysted is asking smokers to send her their last cigarette, which she will use for her art. So far she has received only one final butt, and that smoker started up again a day later; Hoysted is not sure if it will find a place in her art. She’s also still holding on to the final four cigarettes from her own last pack. “I put a razor blade through the filters,” she says. “They are waiting there for some great inspiration.”

Thinking about cigarettes all day may seem like a bad way to go about quitting, but Hoysted says it has been helpful. When she wants a cigarette, she pops the top off one of the three yogurt containers filled with butts that she keeps in her garage for future use.

“It’s absolutely revolting,” she says. “If you need a reminder of how awful cigarettes can be, just take a whiff. It’s a good cure.”