The transformative power of environmental art: Creating beauty from plastic waste

When John Dahlsen first started experimenting with what would soon become his creative medium of choice, it had some of his friends slightly worried. The huge piles of plastic rubbish – all neatly sorted by colour – that had taken over much of the available space in the artist’s house certainly raised eyebrows. “Some of my friends asked me if I was OK”, the Byron Bay based environmental artist remembers laughingly.

Byron Bay based environmental artist John Dahlsen.
John Dahlsen is an environmental artist based in Byron Bay. Image credit: John Dahlsen.

But what may have initially looked like an odd quirk, turned out to be a tremendous source of inspiration for John. An influence so big that it would change the course of his career. The artworks he created from plastic rubbish washing ashore on local beaches catapulted him into the Australian art scene and helped him win international acclaim.

John received the prestigious Wynne Prize for his Thong Totems sculpture in 2000 and was selected as a finalist in 2003 and again in 2004. His work featured in exhibitions in Florence, Milan, New York, Beijing – and countless places in between.

Absolut and Nespresso commissioned work from him to raise awareness about plastic pollution and recycling long before the David Attenborough effect brought the issue into the mainstream.

The accidental environmental artist

All of this was set in motion by happenstance. In 1997, John discovered the potential of plastic rubbish as a means for creative expression while scouring remote beaches in Victoria for driftwood to make furniture. “I noticed all this plastic washing up, so I started picking it up with the intention to take it to the local tip for recycling,” recounts John.

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