Home Valuable stamps Mindful matchbox art helps Bundaberg’s Marlies Oakley deal with floods and COVID

Mindful matchbox art helps Bundaberg’s Marlies Oakley deal with floods and COVID


A South East Queensland artist is on the hunt for matchboxes, but the only fire she cares about is a creative spark.

Sharks jumping into a waterspout, penguins mingling with nuns and a space shuttle flying over the Sydney Opera House tell some of the stories that run through Marlies Oakley’s head.

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

The individual stories contained in matchboxes symbolize disconnection and isolation.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

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

“They consist of a background, with a few other elements in the matchbox for a 3D format. Everything is glued and cut by hand.”

Ms Oakley started working with the collage after her home and business were devastated by the Bundaberg floods in 2013.

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

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

Working with matchboxes was triggered by more recent stress – the 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 during the COVID lockdown and thought, ‘Oh, what can I do with them? and I started sticking them.”

Each matchbox contains its own ‘weird’ or ‘quirky’ little story and when linked represents the common feelings of isolation and disconnection during lockdowns.

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

Matchboxes filled with little pictures pasted inside.
Each matchbox has a background, with images pasted together to form an individual story.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

“We started thinking inside our own box.

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

Matchboxes arouse interest

The artworks have caught the eye of galleries, with Ms. Oakley winning several art awards for her works, including the prestigious Martin Hanson Memorial Art Award and the Highly Commended Lethbridge Gallery Small Art Award, two years in a row.

His 2022 entry ‘Thinking Inside the Box (cubed)’ is 462 matchbox stories tied together to form a cube.

The cube took Ms Oakley around a week to create, in a process she describes as a “memory game” where she surrounded herself with images she had cut.

Creating the stories is a conscious practice for Ms. Oakley, but it was the cutting out of the little pictures from op-shop books and magazines that was most helpful in calming her mind.

A woman is holding a large box which is a work of art featuring matchboxes with miniature collages.
Marlies Oakley with her cube telling 462 collage stories.(ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)

“For hours I just delete things,” Ms. Oakley said.

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

“I had a vacation for three weeks and didn’t and at the end I thought, ‘I need this, I miss it’. I go into my little world and cut and glue.”

An expensive business

The supply of matchboxes is one of the only downsides to Ms. Oakley’s designs, with many stores no longer stocking them.

And they are not cheap.

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

“But I found a really good supply at a big hardware store – not sure if they use them for barbecues or anything, but you can always find them.”

She removes the matches and places them in a large jar, which she might use in an artwork in the future.

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