Mindful matchbox art is helping Bundaberg’s Marlies Oakley process flooding and COVID

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A southeast Queensland artist has been searching for matchboxes — but the only fire she wants to light is a creative spark.

Sharks jumping into a waterspout, penguins mingling with nuns and a space shuttle gliding over the Sydney Opera House depict some of the stories in Marlies Oakley’s mind.

The German-born Bundaberg woman uses a cut-and-paste collage technique to create miniature stories in matchboxes, then assembles the boxes into large-scale voyeuristic works of art.

Individual stories contained in the matchboxes symbolize separation and isolation.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

“Every matchbox is different,” said Ms. Oakley.

“They consist of a background with some other elements inside the matchbox for a 3D format. All collage and hand cut.”

Ms Oakley began working on collages after her home and business were devastated by the 2013 Bundaberg floods.

Her early work involved cutting stamps to create large format portraits, and this process helped quiet her mind.

A portrait of Donald Trump from postage stamps.
Ms. Oakley’s early collage work included portraits created from postage stamps.(Delivered: Marlies Oakley)

Matchbox work has been prompted by a more recent stress – COVID-19 lockdowns.

“A few years ago I got a big box of matches at the Tender Center,” Ms. Oakley said.

“I forgot about them, but then I opened them up during the COVID lockdown and I was like, ‘Oh, what can I do with this?’ and I started collaging them.”

Each matchbox contains its own ‘weird’ or ‘quirky’ little story and when linked together they represent shared feelings of isolation and disconnection during lockdown.

“They are all their own stories because during COVID we all kind of got into our own homes and cocoons and nobody went out,” she said.

Matchboxes filled with small pictures glued inside.
Each matchbox has a background on which pictures are pasted to form an individual story.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

“We started thinking in our own box.

“I love them all, I just giggle when I see them.”

Matchboxes arouse interest

The artworks have attracted the attention of galleries, with Ms. Oakley winning multiple art awards for her work, including the prestigious Martin Hanson Memorial Art Award and the “Highly Commended” Lethbridge Gallery Small Art Award, two years running.

Her 2022 contribution Thinking Inside the Box (cubed) consists of 462 stories made of matchboxes connected to form a cube.

It took Ms Oakley about a week to create the cube, in a process she describes as “memory play” in which she surrounded herself with images she had cut.

Creating the stories is mindful practice for Ms. Oakley, but cutting out the small images from op shop books and magazines was most helpful in quieting her mind.

A woman holds a large box that is a work of art with matchboxes with miniature collages.
Marlies Oakley with her cube that tells 462 collaged stories.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

“I just cut things out for hours,” Ms. Oakley said.

“Even though I don’t paste every day, every night, even in front of the TV, I do cut things out – it’s part of my life now.

“I had three weeks of vacation and I didn’t do it and by the end I was like, ‘I need it, I miss it’. I go into my own little world and cut and glue.”

An expensive undertaking

The sourcing of the matchboxes is one of the only downsides to Ms. Oakley’s creations, as many stores run out of stock.

And they aren’t cheap.

“It’s quite expensive to find the old matchboxes,” Ms. Oakley said.

“But I found a really good deal at a big hardware store — I don’t know if they use them for grilling or whatever, but you can still find them.”

She removes the matches and puts them in a large jar that she might use in a work of art in the future.

Ms Oakley’s artwork Thinking Inside the Box (cubed) is currently on view at the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery as part of the HERE + now 2022 exhibition, which runs through November 13.

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