Mindful matchbox art helps Bundaberg’s Marlis Oakley tackle floods and COVID

An artist from southeast Queensland was searching for matchboxes – but the only fire that cares about lighting is a creative spark.

Sharks jumping into an aquarium, penguins mingling with nuns, and a space shuttle flying over the Sydney Opera House show some of the stories Marlis Oakley has in mind.

The German-born Bundaberg woman creates miniature stories inside matchboxes using an assembled cut-and-paste technique, then joins the boxes together to create large voyeuristic works of art.

A woman leans on artwork from empty matchboxes filled with collected stories.
The individual stories in matchboxes symbolize separation and isolation.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marcellus)

“Every match is different,” Oakley said.

“It consists of a background, with some other elements inside a matchbox for a 3D format. All photo collages and handmade.”

Oakley started working with a college after her home and business were destroyed in the 2013 Bundaberg floods.

Her early work involved cutting postage stamps to create large-scale portraits and the process helped calm her mind.

Portrait of Donald Trump created from postage stamps.
The early Oakley group works included images created from postage stamps.(Supplied: Marlis Oakley)

Business with matchboxes has been triggered by a newer stress – the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Two years ago, I got a big box of matches at the Giving Center,” Ms. Oakley said.

“I forgot about them, but then I opened them up during the COVID lockdown and thought, ‘Oh, what can I do with them?'” And I began to assemble it.

Each matchbox has a little “weird” or “twisted” anecdote and when connected it represents the shared feelings of isolation and disconnection during lockdowns.

“They are all their own stories because during COVID we all kind of have inside our homes and cocoons and no one has come out,” she said.

Woman holding a large chest of artwork featuring matchboxes with miniature collages.
Marlisse Oakley with her cube tells 462 collected stories.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marcellus)

“We started thinking inside our own box.

“I love them all, I only laugh when I see them.”

Matchboxes hit interest

Artwork has captured the attention of galleries, with Ms. Oakley receiving numerous art awards for her work including the prestigious Martin Hanson Memorial Art Award and the ‘Highly Commended’ Small Art Award, two years in a row.

Her entry for 2022, “Thinking Inside the Box (Cube)” is 462 matchbox stories linked to the formation of a cube.

It took Oakley about a week to create the cube, in a process she described as a “memory game” where she surrounded herself with the images she had cut.

Creating stories is a mindful exercise for Mrs. Oakley, but she cuts little pictures from store books and magazines that have been so helpful in calming her mind.

Matchboxes are full of little pictures pasted inside.
Each matchbox has a background, with pictures pasted to form an individual story.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marcellus)

“For hours I just cut things off,” said Mrs. Oakley.

“Even if I don’t glue in a day, every night, even in front of the TV, I’m chopping things off—it’s part of my life now.

“I’ve been on vacation for three weeks and haven’t done it and in the end I thought, ‘I need it, I miss it.’ I go into my own little world and cut and glue it.”

expensive project

Having matchboxes is one of the only downsides to Oakley’s creations, as many stores no longer stock them.

And it’s not cheap.

“It’s very expensive to find old matchboxes,” Oakley said.

“But I did find really good stocks at a big hardware store – I don’t know if they use them for barbecues or something, but you can still find them.”

Remove the matches and put them in a large jar, which you may use for artwork in the future.

Oakley’s artwork ‘Thinking Inside a Box (Cube)’ is currently on display at the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery as part of HERE+Now 2022, which runs through November 13.

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