If you’re under the age of 12 and you live in Maslin Beach, on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, chances are you’re friends with Evelyn Roth.
And if you’ve seen the parade of costumes that winds its way through WOMADelaide, Adelaide’s four-day music festival at Botanic Park, then you’ll know her work.
Evelyn is the creator of the ‘Nylon Zoo’, a collection of giant inflatable storytelling tents and animal-themed costumes that capture imaginations, inspire creativity and foster a love of the environment among legions of young fans.
Her inflatable structures and mazes made from recycled nylon are in demand at events, exhibits and festivals worldwide, providing a platform for raising awareness of environmental issues and a portable venue for storytelling theatre.
Last year she inflated ‘Shamrock’ and ‘Clover’, her newly created giant Southern Right Whale and calf on her front lawn, and put the call-out on Facebook for kids to come and try them out.
After nearly five decades, the 83-year-old artist is as passionate about her work as ever and remains heavily involved in her local community – especially with the younger generation.
“There are a lot of four to five-year-olds in the neighbourhood these days,” she says. “They’re so talkative and imaginative – I love watching them. Their joy is inspiring.”
Evelyn’s love of sewing started early. Born in a small rural town in Alberta, in the US, she remembers making clothes for her dolls, and herself, from the age of 10.
In the 1970s, Evelyn was a pioneer of recycled fashion and wearable art, using her knitting and sewing skills to create sculptures from a range of materials.
Her first inflatable storytelling work appeared in Vancouver, Canada, in 1977, where she worked alongside indigenous communities to create a giant salmon and interactive dance for children in eagle, raven, bear and frog costumes.
Her work caught the attention of the Adelaide Festival curator and she was invited to install an interactive display at the Adelaide Festival Centre Foyer in 1981 which she created out of discarded TV programs (titled Video Jungle).
She returned to South Australia to work with Pitjitjanjara communities and held workshops in rabbit knit and painted leather garments, as well as crocheting shade canopy from discarded video tape and play ‘web’ from nylon.
During these trips Evelyn became friends with local artists who invited her to visit Maslin Beach, then a tiny coastal hamlet.
“I said to myself I’m going to live here one day. I bought a plot of land and I kept sending in my cheques to pay it off – and here I am.”
Today her two-storey house doubles as a studio and is filled with colourful works of art, many painted by her husband, artist John Davis.
From her seat behind the sewing machine at the head of the table, she overlooks a long stretch of sand and water.
Evelyn has never let age dictate who she is or how she should live.
She wears a vivid range of colours and draws from an impressive collection of locally curated jewellery, scarves and hair pieces.
“I’m always disappointed that so many people choose to wear black. It’s always black, black, and grey. Why not colour?”
“The act of doing art, whether it’s painting, sewing or dancing, is vital. Our kids will lose their communication skills, their storytelling, if their fingers and minds are only on the iPads.”
An avid follower of yoga, Evelyn eats well, and swims often. Her morning routine often includes a run or ‘forest bath’ (walk) in the trees near the creek, yoga stretches and some time spent hanging upside down on her bar, before finding a quiet spot to write in her journal. She enjoys a daily fresh juice, often with beetroot, apple and a few extra goodies like broccoli and radish.
“I’m not afraid of getting older. I do everything I can to be fit and alert,” she says. “I’m in good health. I’m happy. Being near the ocean is important to me, hearing the sound of the water.”
Evelyn hopes that someone – “a sewer, a storyteller” – will one day take over and carry on her work, but for now she is happy to continue. At the time of interview, she had just finished a residency at Mercedes College, Springfield, and was looking forward to heading to Hawaii for her annual residency with the Storybook Theatre Company.
Evelyn believes that art has an important role to play in preventing and treating depression, especially among young people. “I believe that parents need to let their children explore and create, to get them out into nature and let them do activities that use their bodies and expand their minds.” She’s just finished creating a series of dinosaur costumes – a pterodactyl, stegosaurus and T-Rex – to the delight of her five-year-old friend Elliott .
“He put one of these on and he was really pleased,” she says, a twinkle in her eye. “He didn’t want to take it off – he wanted to wear it home.”
Evelyn will be part of the Adelaide fringe this year, setting up giant inflatables along the River Torrens, and will bring her coral reef-themed maze to her 24th WOMAD Festival in March.