Interview with Gallery Artist Mark Vaarwerk

Studio 20/17 intern Victoria Cleland, interviewed gallery artist Mark Vaarwerk and discussed his ongoing fascination with transforming the plastic detritus of our everyday lives into his beautiful signature jewellery pieces.


The Plastic Alchemist: An Interview with Mark Vaarwerk

Mark Vaarwerk combines cast silver with crayons and polystyrene with pink gold. His process transmutes everyday waste products into individual jewels. Vaarwerk’s choice of materials are the undesirable and the overlooked; plastic bags, polystyrene food boxes, acrylic car and bicycle indicators, computer keys and cigarette filters, all of which Vaarwerk ‘expands’, ‘liquefies’, ‘dissolves’ and ‘extrudes’ to become brooches, bracelets, earrings and necklaces.

However mystical Mark’s method seems, transforming plastics is something he has studied and experimented with consistently in his jewellery making practice, aided by grants from the Australian Council for the Arts. He now runs a workshop titled Transforming Throwaway Plastics, which incorporates some of his techniques and encourages a shift in the perception of ‘waste’, its value and its uses.

Mark was kind enough to take some time out to answer some questions for Studio 20/17, focusing on the development of his unique material practice.

What appeals to you about throwaway plastics as a material source?

There are a few reasons why I enjoy working with throwaway plastics. I like the fact that it is free, and that I can put something to use that is considered rubbish, worthless. So it is a win win. I also enjoy working with materials that may be familiar to people – that even though it has been remade into jewellery I want there to still be a hint or suggestion of its original incarnation. This subtle connection with its earlier life can sometimes suggest a story – set in this everyday world – one that is continuing because of this re-use.

What has been your most interesting ‘material discovery’ since you have been working in this area? Any unexpected outcomes?

Many of my techniques are based on my own experiments with easily available materials. So in a sense my practice depends on these material discoveries and unexpected outcomes. Early work of mine focused on making necklaces from plastic bag string. This began with my learning to spin natural conventional fibers into string, and then I began to experiment with a wider range of easily available materials – and of these the best results came from plastic shopping bags. Similarly the work I am doing currently began with experimenting with different easily available plastics, I was not looking for a specific result – I was simply looking for ways to manipulate a small assortment of materials. From the samples that were the outcome of these experiments I chose the ones that showed the most potential for making new and interesting jewellery.

How do you collect your materials? Do you have industrial contacts or suppliers or is it more haphazard (for example, through friends or neighborhood collections)?

I’m more interested in materials that might be found in a domestic situation than an industrial one. At the moment the materials I am working with come from a bit of scavenging – I often find expanded polystyrene boxes sticking out of wheelie bins or in back laneways behind restaurants and cafés. I might pick scraps of plastic off residential streets – e.g. bits of broken car blinker, headlight and brake light covers. And yes, quite a bit of my materials also come from friends and family who collect it for me rather than throwing it away – wasted pens and printer ink cartridges, broken appliances, and still the occasional plastic shopping bag donated for making string.

You use unusual processes to create your works – expanding, liquefying, dissolving and so on. Can you talk us through one as an example?

Shrinking expanded polystyrene is the process I depend on most at the moment. I would collect a box or two of expanded polystyrene in advance, cut it down into flat pieces, clean it with water and soap and rinse it and let it dry. Say I was making a brooch I would choose the shape – usually a quite simple geometric shape like a circle, and trace it onto the sheet of polystyrene and then cut the shape out. This I usually do with a hot wire cutter. Then I might shrink the shape straight away by placing it in an airtight container with a small open container inside with a small amount of acetone in it. The acetone slowly evaporates and the vapor inside the container reacts with the piece of plastic and it gradually shrinks to maybe half or one third the original size. So the shape needs to be quite big at the start. Generally I colour the plastic in some way – this can be done before or after the shrinking stage for different effects. One coating I commonly apply is acrylic (e.g. broken brake light covers) dissolved in acetone, and once it becomes a syrupy liquid it can be painted onto the polystyrene like paint. Once the shrinking is complete and the container opened and the acetone removed, the shape will be slightly soft and gooey and then will harden into a plastic much denser and harder than the original expanded polystyrene. Then the metal findings can be fixed- e.g. the brooch pin and catch.

What is the biggest piece of polystyrene you have ‘expanded’?

I have occasionally shrunken expanded polystyrene boxes whole – which are sometimes around meter long at the beginning.

How significant has the support from the Australian Arts Council been in your practice?

Funding from Australia council has been quite significant to me and my practice – I have had three Australia council grants since I began my jewellery career. I find that grants are a godsend when you need to make a change of some kind, when you need to do something new to bring back your enthusiasm for making. The luxury of being free to be creative – to have the space or the time or the finances – is not always there but a grant can mean you are suddenly able to address these imbalances. When first starting out grants can be especially valuable as well.

What sort of response do you get from people participating in your Transforming Throwaway Plastics workshop? I imagine that might be very surprised and intrigued?

Yes quite surprised and intrigued. Fortunately I have had lots of positive feedback, but the responses are surprisingly varied. I am always surprised by how different people like to approach the same materials and processes in such different ways. Which is excellent because after a workshop there are always such a diversity of outcomes. But the one response that I always get from a lot of different participants (and which I find very encouraging) is that after the workshop the way they see these things they usually just throwaway is changed forever.

Before I realised your recent solo show was titled Alchemy, I thought of you as a ‘plastic alchemist’. Why do you think alchemy is a word often associated with your jewellery?

I think because I push myself to find ways to transform in unexpected ways materials that are often taken totally for granted.

How did it feel for your work to be included in Unexpected Pleasures, the huge contemporary jewellery exhibition curated by Dr. Susan Cohn, alongside works made of conventional, ‘precious’ materials?


By creating something wearable (and beautiful) out of everyday ‘rubbish’ it extends our understanding of ‘waste’. Has your practice changed your perception of waste? Do you think your work helps to develop an environmental or societal awareness? Is this important to you?

Yes to all of these! To put it simply, I guess I try to make work that I enjoy making and am proud to see being worn. I try to make in a way that is meaningful and rewarding to me. I am happy to see a variety of responses to my work, and expect the meanings read into my work will be different for different people. If people are curious about my work I will focus on talking to them about the materials I have used, where I might have found them and how I made them into what they see in front of them rather than the meanings behind the piece.

Do you think you will continue to work with these materials in the future? Is there more experimenting to be done or new materials to play with?

At the moment I feel like I will be sticking with expanded polystyrene for a little longer. There are so many ways I could experiment with even just this one main material and technique, so I am not planning any big changes for now. In the long run there will be need for change and variety, and there will always be new materials that I will be able to adopt, and with them new techniques. But in all cases there will definitely be lots more experimentation!

Finally, I found a link to Mark Vaarwerk Homework t-shirts and stickers online. They are really amazing! Are you planning anymore?

Thanks! They were something I did just for a little fun. I never sold very many because I am the worst at self-promotion! So, I doubt that I will ever get around to doing more…

Check out our website for some of Mark’s work and pop in to the gallery to see our full range.