If you’ve been to WOMADelaide, chances are you know the work of Evelyn Roth. Her inflatable Nylon Zoo creations are a hit every year with kids and grownups alike. We visit her at her Maslin Beach home to talk art, love and getting your kit off.
There’s nothing like the feeling of salty sea air on your bare buttocks. Just ask 80-year-old Evelyn Roth. The artist gets her kit off at Maslin Beach whenever she has the chance.
“I’m a nudie from way back,” she says with a grin.
“I’ve been hanging out at nudist beaches since the seventies.”
Back then, the colourful Canadian tanned her bits at Wreck Beach, a stretch of sand in Vancouver favoured by naturists.
“It’s beautifully serviced. You can get piña coladas delivered straight to your towel.”
Evelyn fell in love with the South Australian coastline in 1979. She was in Adelaide to create a crocheted videotape instillation for the Adelaide Festival Centre foyer, and visited artist friends at Maslin Beach.
“I stood at the top of the hill, I saw the beautiful cliffs. When I realised it was a nudist beach I thought ‘Whoa, this is the place for me!’”
Evelyn put a deposit on her hilltop abode in 1982 and emigrated to Australia as a community artist in 1996.
The region is brighter for it. This vivacious pocket rocket is a head-turner. Mischievous eyes are highlighted by thick caterpillars of blue eyeshadow and her silver hair is topped with a burst of multi-coloured dreadlocks. Her wardrobe is a mix of wearable art, customised finds and hand-painted jackets.
“I like painted leather,” she says.
“I paint reincoats for men and women.”
She opens her wardrobe and points to a particularly vibrant jacket.
“I’ll take this to WOMADelaide because at night I can snuggle under a tree and it’s like a big tent coat.”
The annual world music festival is special to Evelyn. For more than 20 years her portable storytelling theatre Nylon Zoo has been a highlight of the festival’s educational area. Evelyn’s handmade bird, animal, insect and vegetable costumes are used for parades and her large, inflatable endangered animals (aka interactive classrooms) are a place to teach children about environmental issues.
“Since 1969 my whole world has been about recycling and using natural fibres. And about raising the awareness of recycling and showing that it can be fun and creative.” Her latest creation is a giant nudibranch.
“It’s like a slug,” she says, pointing to a photograph of a bright pink marine mollusc. “Isn’t it neat?”
When WOMADelaide hits Botanic Park from 10 to 13 March 2017, the sea creature will steal the show. The interactive 12-metre-long structure was handmade using iridescent fabric and nylon, and once inflated, will be used to teach festival-goers about saving coral reefs.
“The nudibranch made by the nudie from Maslin Beach.” She chuckles.
“I want it to be really magical. It’ll have lighting effects in the inside so you can see the coral getting lighter as it’s being bleached by global warming.”
Evelyn’s inflatable journey started in 1977 when she made a salmon ‘wind sock’ for a festival held by the Haida native people near Alaska.
“It was a wind sock. You had to put it to the wind.”
Her dance group wrote a half-an-hour Salmon Dance drama around the inflatable fish. It was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1982 and Evelyn was later invited as guest artist for the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. The rest is history.
She creates her inflatable classrooms in the upper level of the two-storey home shared with her husband, painter John Davies.
“It’s a really cool neighbourhood full of open-minded people,” John says.
“Lots of artists, weird, eccentric people and old hippy dudes like me.”
The pair met in 1998 after Evelyn spotted an ad in the local paper’s personal column. She giggles.
“It said, ‘Quiet, sensitive, 40-year-old bearded artist seeks down-to-earth lady to share my life with.’ So I wrote him. It was John.”
Sparks flew over a glass of wine at Port Willunga’s Star of Greece and love blossomed.
“I had a few offers after putting that ad in The Messenger,” John says.
“But Evelyn was cool.”
Her handwritten letter won him over. She even included a photograph of her inflatable sewing machine.
John is Evelyn’s fifth husband, and like her wardrobe, her stories of love and life are colourful. There was the German hubby, the Jewish architect, the husband who was being extradited from Ghana, the young Japanese/American Taiko player and storyteller, and John.
“I love working with her on fabric,” he says.
“Evelyn is very rare in terms of being a self-supporting artist for 40-plus years. She’s non-reliant on anybody to give her dough.”
Like its owners, their house is eccentric. Every inch of wall is covered in John’s art and trinkets collected across the globe. The kitchen floorboards are plastered (papier mâché style) with pictures from vintage recipe books.
“It’s an ever-evolving floor,” she says.
“If you drop a vitamin or egg shell you’ll never find it. It drives me nuts. I dropped a vitamin this morning. I’ll hear it crunch when I step on it.”
To date, she’s crafted more than 50 inflatable animals ranging from whales to quolls, roosters, polar bears, leafy sea dragons, magic fish, platypus, turtles, and eco mazes.
“We need more attention on eco-education. We know how to involve and excite kids; just bring an inflatable and puff it up in the gym.”
Each one is made using recycled nylon and takes about a month to sew. John adds a splash of paint to their interior and exterior. They are quite a sight. The inflatables have appeared at festivals, cultural events, Brisbane’s 1982 Commonwealth Games, Edmonton Canada World University Games in 1983, Vancouver Expo in 1986, and the Commonwealth Games in Victoria in 1994. They also delight children in schools across the globe.
“It’s very, very different from the plastic laminate stuff used for bouncy castles,” Evelyn says.
“I try to keep away from that and always have. It’s about storytelling, not aggressive jumping up and down.”
When they’re not in use, the inflatable critters are packed into cupboards in her home. At under 20 kilograms each, they’re easy to transport as hand luggage or posted internationally and have made trips all over the world.
“Portability, fabric, and imagination have always been my thing.”
Every new critter is tested out on her front lawn and local kids flock to experience the spectacle. The nippers dress in Evelyn’s handmade costumes and dance, float and explore the colourful inflatable space.
“There is no greater joy than creating something that causes children to express themselves,” she says.
“I want to show children that things can be handmade; you don’t have to buy everything. Also that an artist can use their skills with a sewing machine, fabric and knitting and have a good living and life.”
In 1974 the Evelyn Roth Recycling Book was released by Talon Books. The publication was recently re-photographed and released as an e-book and is full of snaps of wacky creations including wheatgrass capes, paper coats and knitted fur, moss costumes, and a car cozy made from crocheted videotape. Her knitted rabbit fur pieces appeared in a
New York fashion show in 1979, and in 1999 she won WOW (The World of Wearable Art) international design competition.