Nylon Zoo artist Evelyn Roth: 'I've never stopped recycling'

KALEIDOSCOPE: "Coming from Canada I found people here fearful to dress in colour," says Evelyn Roth, pictured in her Maslin Beach home. Photo: Naomi Giatas
KALEIDOSCOPE: "Coming from Canada I found people here fearful to dress in colour," says Evelyn Roth, pictured in her Maslin Beach home. Photo: Naomi Giatas

With her "pokey-out hair", vivid jewellery and multi-coloured wardrobe, 83-year-old textile and performance artist Evelyn Roth's outlook as is bright as her appearance.

From her two-storey home and studio which she shares with husband, artist John Davis, overlooking Maslin Beach on South Australia's Fleurieu Peninsula, Evelyn sews giant inflatable animal-shaped tents and costumes out of nylon. It's something she's been doing for four decades.

It's something she's been doing for four decades.

SEW BIG: Evelyn at home with one of her Nylon Zoo creations - a giant inflatable frog. Photo: Facebook.

SEW BIG: Evelyn at home with one of her Nylon Zoo creations - a giant inflatable frog. Photo: Facebook.

"I'm working on a flying fox. I'd never done one before, so thought 'why not?'," she told The Senior.

"And I've just finished an albino kangaroo, Ruby Roo, who can hold around 50 kids inside."

Working alongside her is her husband of 22 years, artist John Davis.

"He'll paint anything - from an inflatable nudibranch to a coral reef while I'm stitching away."

"When you're sewing you're thinking about the colour and what it feels like to be inside. They make a wondrous, meditative space which really captures the mind.

"I do get attached to them. But the good thing is they're very portable and can be stuffed into a storage cupboard until you need them again."

Right now she has around 30 or so packed away in her wardrobe.

These fantastic creations are part of Nylon Zoo - a magical inflatable pop-up story theatre.

This year was Nylon Zoo's 23rd outing at Womadelaide world music festival, where little ones were invited to discover a new world of storytelling inside the belly of a giant Southern Right Whale Shamrock and her baby, Clover.

IMMERSED: Evelyn Roth inside one of her colourful inflatable creations.

IMMERSED: Evelyn Roth inside one of her colourful inflatable creations.

And not only does Evelyn create the magical creatures, she also dresses up, dances and choreographs the stories herself.

"There are not many 83-year-olds who can run a sewing machine like I can and I'm also running the parades.

"There can be up to 50 children involved, dressed as butterflies, frogs, bees, you name it. You have all these monarch butterflies running around sticking to trees - it's really cute."

Evelyn, who grew up in Canada and moved to Australia 20 years ago, said she's always has always been inspired by the joy of children. But it wasn't until she reconnected with her long-lost son a few years ago that she understood why.

"I never knew who my one and only was," said Evelyn, who got married to her first husband, fell pregnant at 17 and gave her son up for adoption.

"But four years ago I tracked him down and I found out he is an architect. We first spoke over Sykpe and then met in person soon after he turned 60.

"It was such a wonderful meeting and now I also have a relationship with my grandchildren."

She said missing out on years of having her own children around may have led to her playful pursuits.

"I guess this may be why I love action and colour and childlike fantasy.I just love being creative, colourful and dancing."

Recycling pioneer

Evelyn's knack for sewing and turning scrap into art started early.

"Growing up on a prairie farm in Alberta, USA, reusing and recycling was a way of life. We did a lot of knitting and crocheting."

Moving to Vancouver in the 1960s, she joined a group of artists, dancers and filmmakers called Intermedia and started making 'wearable art', creating clothing from everything fro moss and wheatgrass to paper.

"Back then the words 'recycling' and 'ecology' were new and innovative," she said of the book, which featured 'wearable art' and recycled fashion.

I've never stopped recycling since my days on the farm.

In the 70s - after experimenting with making a 'car cosy' out of crocheted discarded VHS tape - she published The Evelyn Roth Recycling Book which has since been re-released as an e-book.

As luck would have it around the time Evelyn came across a train-load of nylon scraps going for free, she was also invited to decorate five aircraft hangars for the 1976 UN Habitat Forum in Vancouver.

And a year later, she was commissioned to make a giant 50ft salmon - her first inflatable storytelling work - for the Haida First American peoples on the west coast of Alaska in 1977.

TIMELESS CLASSIC: The Evelyn Roth Recycling Book was published in 1974 and is now available as an e-book.

TIMELESS CLASSIC: The Evelyn Roth Recycling Book was published in 1974 and is now available as an e-book.

Her first trip to Australia was in 1979, when a friend who was curating the Adelaide Festival invited Evelyn to make an interactive installation out of crocheted VHS tape.

"ABC stations donated all this tape and I crocheted a huge jungle. I just fell in love with Adelaide."

The first showing of Nylon Zoo was in 1982 at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, and since then she has made hundreds of unique creatures and costumes.

She's also been going to Hawaii making inflatable classrooms for the past 25 years.

"Through life I've been very fortunate to be inspired. I never say no to a project. Some people are afraid that they can't do something. But to me it's a challenge."

And while she may be pushing 84, Evelyn has no plans to stop sewing and just yet.

She does hope one day someone "a sewer, a storyteller" will take over and carry on her work, but is happy now to keep creating.

"Now my granddaughter comes and visits and helps out and comes to some of my exhibitions, so who knows?".

This story The colourful world of recycling pioneer Evelyn Roth first appeared on The Senior.