Today’s interviewee is nothing short of passionate about the environment. Sydney-based eco-artist and designer Angela Van Boxtel lives and breathes saving the environment literally one plastic bag at a time. And she doesn’t just help clean up the streets and beaches from the dreaded plastic bag, she also crochets them. Why use yarn when you could use a plastic bag? Not only that but she exhibits her sculptural work, conducts workshops on creating art from rubbish and is an active environmentalist. As she loves telling the kids at her workshops: waste is fun!
And how much fun is a crocheted bikini made from discarded plastic bags?
Come and meet the vibrant Angela and find out why she’s turning heads with her eco-swimwear …
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background and how you’ve ended up where you are today.
I’m an eco-artist and designer with a Master’s degree in Media & Communications. I never studied art or design but learned on the go. Before moving to Sydney from Amsterdam, I was working in multi-media and have always been passionate about social and environmental issues. My art is all about the message and currently it’s the issue of plastic pollution that is slowly killing our precious earth.
I grew up on a farm in a small country town in the southern part of the Netherlands and our life was very sustainable. From a young age I had an affinity with the land and a knack for being creative. I made things from what was available around me. I remember making a jacket for my doll by combining pink wool with a strand of plastic bread bags. I think exploring and innovating always existed within me. Moving to Manly I had to recreate my previous life from scratch and being a mum of four boys I started exploring creatively using my hands again. As I had no understanding of the art or design world as such I started knocking on doors and somehow many of them opened leading me into new worlds.
Manly Arts Festival allowed me to freely explore my ideas, as was being part of the Pop Up Shop project by North Sydney Council. Eventually I learned it’s about finding your unique voice and it doesn’t matter if you have an arts or design degree or not. My art has a strong message and at times I think it’s more the message than the art that captivates me, yet when people find immense beauty in my art that’s just a wonderful bonus. As philosopher Richard Wollheim once said about the nature of art, it is “one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture”.
You’re clearly passionate about the environment and protecting it. When and why did you begin exploring with discarded plastic bags and why did you decide to crochet them?
I began exploring with plastic bags more than three years ago. Living on the beautiful Northern Beaches I’m very aware of the amazing wildlife we have and how blessed we are with the number of wonderful environmental groups trying to protect it. One of these groups is the Two Hands Project which asks people to dedicate thirty minutes of their time to clean up a local beach or park and post on social media a photo of what rubbish they have found. After helping out with beach clean-ups I became aware of how dangerous plastic pollution is to our sea creatures. I’m still in awe, even after living here for fifteen years, how I can see seals, turtles, dolphins and whales at my local beach. It’s amazingly crazy that you can have this while living in a big city.
Swimming with turtles on one of my many ocean swims spurred me to single out the plastic shopping bag. When turtles see a plastic bag in the ocean they think it is a jelly fish, so they eat it but it can kill them. We don’t need single-use plastic shopping bags i.e. bags we only use once. The alternative is already here in the form of reusable shopping bags. I decided to focus on this issue as I believe if people can’t commit to making a simple gesture like this then we are lost as a ‘civilised’ society.
Do you spend a lot of time collecting ‘rubbish’ or do people now give you their plastic bags for use in your art?
Yes, I help out with a lot of beach and street clean-ups, collecting packaging rubbish left by businesses in bins and bags from, for example, swimming events which otherwise would go to landfill. I also spend lots of time writing my blog Green with Envy Ideas about the issues I encounter in order to educate people on how they can make a change. I also try to convince people to give up single-use plastic bags and give their last one to me. Note: I don’t want people to donate their plastic bags and then keep on using them as it goes against what my art is all about. My plastic bag crochet sculptures are not about recycling it’s about showing people that plastic is a resource and that we should not be sending it to landfill. I want people to stop using plastic bags so I can stop crocheting them. If not, then I will continue until the last bag is banned.
You were a finalist in the Keep NSW Beautiful – Environmental Achievement Award 2015. Tell us about that award.
The award was for individuals who demonstrated an outstanding commitment to the environment – for those who have helped improve the sustainability and general health of the environment of their local area or have shown leadership, strength of character in pursuing environmental outcomes in their personal life and/or in the wider community. Though in the end it’s a piece of paper, I’m not in this for an award. It’s about being able to live with myself and not one day having to look my grandchildren in the eyes and answer the question: ‘But Nana why did you not do anything?’
Tell us about your creative process – how do you like to work, who or what inspires you?
I’m inspired by nature, especially the vast ocean. That’s why I love to be part of outdoor sculptural exhibitions so I can work on location and respond to its creative, amazing energy. For me nature – be it animals or plants – already has the best of what the world has to offer for free. Colours and the combination of colours also inspire me. Children inspire me to be playful and allow the inner child in me to come out. My art is to be touched and interacted with, not locked safely in a box like in a museum or gallery.
What would be your dream project? Or have you already done it?
My dream project would be a movie or theatrical show with all the costumes made from waste, playing out the craziness of our consumerist behaviour. My plastic bag costumes are a start and having them shown around some iconic pools as part of the Sydney Design Festival recently was a way for me to explore this idea and interact with audiences. I’m working towards larger shows so I can take the costumes on a tour around Australia to send the message about plastic pollution in a fun and positive way and to engage and connect people about what can be done.
I’m currently working on …
A tree sculpture for the Art Carnivale in November in Avalon, Sydney. The whole village will be buzzing for three weeks with public art pieces and performances. I’m making an all-white plastic bag crocheted piece that will sit around a beautiful sculptural tree inside the Avalon shopping village. There will also be some fun pop-up performances where my plastic bag crocheted swimmers will make appearances in surprising locations, such as on the local barista serving coffee wearing a pair of plastic bag crochet speedos.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
Yes, often I think: I’m making a living from others people’s waste … it’s totally crazy! More often I think I wish my mum could see me and if only she could see all the art and designs I now create on a daily basis simply because she taught me the traditional skills of crocheting. Unfortunately, she did not live to witness this but she would certainly have said ‘who’d have thought’!
Thanks so much Angela!
And if you were wondering about wearing her bikinis, they are not for commercial sale but Angela is planning to be the first person to swim the Cole Classic ocean swim in February in a grey plastic shopping bag swimsuit.