It began as a last hurrah—a trio of friends heading to a downtown Halifax bar for a memorial puff to indoor smoking.
“We were just like, you know what, let’s go have one last smoke in a bar,” Steve Maly says with a laugh. “That’s the only reason we were talking about the ashtrays.”
It was November 30, the day before HRM’s new stricter smoking ban went into effect, making all restaurants, cabarets, lounges and bars completely non-smoking. Over drinks and cigarettes, Maly and his friends Phil Harris and Donald Cooley began to wonder where all the ashtrays were going to go the next day.
They quickly brainstormed an idea to use the trays for what Maly calls “a better purpose.” They decided to collect them up from local bars and restaurants, then have them turned into a piece of art that could be auctioned off to raise money for cancer research.
“I think most people know somebody who has had cancer, but that’s not the reason we’re doing it,” Harris says. “It just seems like, there’s nothing else we could do with the ashtrays.”
Sitting in a coffee shop on Quinpool Road, Maly reaches into his backpack and pulls out some examples of the smokers’ booty collected so far.
“Weird things to walk around with, I know,” he says, joking.
Heavy glass, industrial black plastic, and painted metal clink together in a jumble. Most are clean, but singe marks and bubbled plastic give them a definite “used” quality.
The trio’s first ashtrays were collected at Duffy’s Speakeasy the night the idea was born. Since then, the three young men, along with friend Bridgette Morrissey, have amassed more than 130 from around the city. The trays are stacked in Maly’s apartment for the moment.
“It’s going to get worse,” he says. “When you think of how many there are out there, it’s insane. Every bar, if you got 50…there’s a lot of bars in this city.”
Bars have donated varying numbers of used trays—from two or three to 40. Harris has done most of the legwork, literally.
“It’s hard because none of us has a vehicle,” he says. “So it’s whatever we can carry.”
The four have also delivered flyers, describing the project and asking for donations, to bars around town. Maly says the response from the attempt has been slow—just one bar has been in touch. Still, the reaction from friends and others makes him hopeful.
“Everyone loves the idea,” he says. “Every person we’ve talked to has been all about it.”
The project is still in the planning stages.
“Coming up with it in December, running through Christmas, there’s just been no time,” Maly says. “But we had to move quickly because we didn’t want everyone to throw them all out.”
“Over the next month, our goal is to have thousands,” Harris says. “We want a whole pile of ashtrays.”
The four friends originally planned to harvest trays only from bars. Then Harris thought of collecting from motels and other venues. They will even take donations from individuals looking to unload their personal stash of ashtrays.
When they have reached critical ashtray mass, the gang will enlist local artists to create at least one sculpture from the bounty. They have a few artists in mind and are looking for any interested parties—or interesting designs. The trays may not be easy to work with.
“These aren’t going to melt very well, because they’re designed not to,” Maly says, waving one of the plastic trays. “We’ll figure something out.”
Once the sculptures are ready, it will be time to sell. Harris would like to hold a black-tie evening auction, or an exhibition to show off the sculptures to prospective bidders.
“I think when we do have this auction, the people who are going to be bidding on the sculptures are the club owners who gave us the ashtrays,” Harris says.
The four will choose where to donate the proceeds as the project progresses.
Maly says even though the group is made up of current and former smokers, their goal to donate is not a false virtue.
“You’re a smoker, fine, and maybe that’s a dumb idea, but you’re not pro-cancer.”
The ashtray project is accepting all donations of used ashtrays. Interested artists can get in touch to propose sculpture designs. Email: email@example.com