From Dropout to Tinsel Queen – On the Cutting Edge of Creativity with Rachel Burke
photos KELLEY SHEENAN
Known for her vibrant, tactile designs and iconic tinsel creations, Rachel Burke is inspired by a love for naive craft materials and transforming the mundane into the magical.
Here, in partnership with our good friends at Fiskars who are celebrating 55 years of their iconic orange-handled scissors, we chat to Rachel about her artistic journey from musical theatre dropout to the undisputed tinsel queen.
Your art is so instantly recognisable yet eminently changeable – you make everything from shoes and clothes to art installations and interior design. Do you have a guiding philosophy or sensibility that you think unites your work?
I think the main thing I encourage myself to do throughout my art practice and my work is to play and to do so without inhibition or judgement. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this down, but I have been referring to this making sensibility as PLA PLA. I’ll announce “It’s pla pla time!” to my partner, and this basically means that I’m going to go make a colourful mess and see what happens. It might mean taping up a piece of garbage and painting it pastel, turning a cereal box into a bag or just scribbling on a piece of paper with your eyes shut for five minutes. There are no rules, and the more basic and gnarly the materials… the better. My other guiding philosophy would probably be something along the lines of let the work speak. I like to just throw myself into making something and see what magic can happen, and then reflect on the result after the fact.
Another key part of my process would also have to be: sharing the work. I don’t like to create in a vacuum and believe that sharing what I have made, and often inviting others to participate in the process, makes the whole thing a lot more exciting and enjoyable.
There are no rules, and the more basic and gnarly the materials… the better.
How did your artistic journey begin?
My journey began in my parent’s garage. They gave me this space to work in after I dropped out of a musical theatre degree and I started sewing and making nonstop. I’d had a little bit of experience with making costumes and props as a result of my performing in shows, but it was only after I left this course that I became focused on pursuing these interests full-time. After I got started, I began a blog where I would document all the things I was making. From there, I set myself a number of making challenges like hand-making a dress a day for a year. This project was really the thing that started my journey. It gave me the most important knowledge of all: that I didn’t have to wait for someone else to give me an opportunity… that I could just do the work that I loved to do and follow where that would lead. Turns out, operating this way can lead to a lot of interesting places! It’s been over 10 years now since working away in my parent’s garage, and needless to say, I’ve gone to a lot of interesting places with my work!
Was there a moment you came to your aesthetic or has it developed naturally over time?
I do think my aesthetic has grown naturally over time, and honestly, I believe it is continuing to evolve, change and expand every day. I will say that any time I put myself in some kind of pressure-cooker situation, where I set myself a crazy task (like making 365 dresses or drawing for 24 hours straight in a hotel room) my creative lizard brain takes over and exciting things seem to emerge that can propel me further along in my making journey. But yes, I’ve always been drawn to colour and abundance and crazy repetition!
I feel I approach my artwork with an improvisational heart – like I’m playing jazz but with connector pens.
You’ve characterised your work as “process driven”. How would you describe your creative process?
As I work across so many mediums and disciplines, my process can actually be quite different depending on what I’m tackling. If I am producing my own artwork or even exploring concepts for a creative brief, then the process is very much driven by curiosity, play, and a desire to see what happens along the way. I actually think my acting background has had a lot to do with how I like to function in my art and creative practice – I always loved the excitement and possibility that existed within the space of improvisation and “writing on stage” in the moment. I feel I approach my artwork with an improvisational heart – like I’m playing jazz but with connector pens. I love these processes because I know they work for me. I know now (from doing it over and over) that if I create these spaces for myself to explore and discover, something interesting is invariably going to reveal itself. I find it all quite exciting and magical!
That being said though, I have a different set of processes when it comes to creating client work, executing a big installation, or even writing books. With these sorts of jobs, my process becomes much more meticulous and planned. It’s less about ‘playing’ and more about creating a very clear map for how to successfully bring an idea to life. I think I see my art and studio time as a gym for my creative brain. I train and train with improv and play, but when it comes to crunch time, I like to have the ability to harness that energy in a focused way and achieve the clear goal at hand.
What’s the first thing you do at the beginning of a new project?
With any new project, no matter what it is, I always crack out a notebook and start scribbling things down. I like to give myself an analog space to ideate and explore, and for some reason, this just always works a treat for me. Nothing like a pen and paper to really get the creative pot simmering!
I’m a pretty simple gal when it comes to my tools. I always need scissors in my radius at all times and love my trusty orange Fiskars pair!
You work with such a wide range of mediums – what are your must-have tools?
I’m a pretty simple gal when it comes to my tools. I always need scissors in my radius at all times and love my trusty orange Fiskars pair! For snipping threads, cutting fabric, trimming pom poms, making collages… you name it, I’m always reaching for them! But aside from that, I just work on a basic home sewing machine which I adore and also… couldn’t get far without my hot glue gun and Fiskars utility knife!
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Your art is such a visceral delight with colourful and textural variety – where or how do you source all your wonderful bits and bobs?
I am such a bowerbird and love to collect materials and fabrics over time that I think will eventually find a home within my work. I actually source a lot of my goodies from thrift stores and love to trawl eBay for people on-selling their old craft supplies. I feel like the offerings at craft stores when it comes to bits and bobs can sometimes be very ‘same same’ and actually find sourcing second-hand materials this way actually makes the work so much more visually exciting and interesting.
The same goes for receiving material donations from friends… gosh the craft hoards that people have! I once got the most incredible box of vintage flowers from someone that was from the 1960s… they made the most incredible headpieces! And they were made all the more special because there was a finite amount of them that couldn’t be replicated.
Another favourite haunt for me in Brisbane would have to be Reverse Garbage. It is the best place to get deadstock materials, beads and sequins! It’s an amazing resource and truly makes you see trash as treasure!
How do you approach sustainability in your work?
I do the best I can within my practice to thrift, recycle and, wherever possible, use salvaged materials and sustainable tools like the Fiskars ReNew scissors [made from recycled plastic and cellulose fibre] to create my works. Thanks to the internet, I have been able to make it known that I will buy my follower’s old shiny bits, craft supplies and glitters, and so have had the opportunity to make a lot of my creations using these repurposed materials – which brings me such joy.
A culmination of this way of operating really had to be my Brisbane Fashion Week show earlier this year Trash n’ Treasure Planet Prom. For this show, I used all vintage garments and upcycled them all with either deadstock fabrics or donated tinsel. One of my favourite pieces from this show was the Trash Coat – a massive floor-length coat made with tinsel and raffia that had all been donated or purchased from my Instagram followers. It’s such a special piece – made more special because of the story of where all the materials came from.
In addition to this, all the shoes used in the show were upcycled samples and seconds from Rollie and Hype DC. It excited me so much that these shoes, which might have been sent to landfill due to minor faults, were given a totally new life with some simple customisation and TLC! Cereal boxes were made into bags and goodness me… there was just so much trash turned into absolute treasure for this show, and it was really, really exciting and ultimately, the way I want to continue making my work.
You are widely renowned as the “Tinsel Queen”. What appeals to you about sparkly things?
Ha! Yes, I do love shiny things. And honestly, I believe it’s hereditary. I’m half Maltese and I think it’s interesting that culturally there is a real love and value put on gold and diamonds. My mum has talked about her mum, grandma and great-grandma all loving lavish adornments – my mum is absolutely the same! I will say that obviously, my tastes are more on the rhinestone side when it comes to diamonds haha (my wallet thanks me), but I really have always just had an innate love for sparkly things and decadent textures. One of my earliest memories is stuffing my little preppy art smock with sequins and gems – I was desperate to have these supplies en masse.
I find it so inspiring to see people doing what they love in real time and vulnerably sharing their creative voices for all to see – it makes me want to do the same.
What is exciting and inspiring you right now?
I am actually very excited about doing a lot more writing in the future and applying some of the creative methods I have learned to this space. Not only am I excited about this because it finally utilises the half of a literature degree I never finished – but did pay the HECS for! – but also because I really, really enjoy it.
Aside from that, I am getting a lot of inspiration from getting back to seeing live theatre and music again. There is obviously something so special about watching artists make their magic on stage, and I so missed getting to do this during the pandemic. I find it so inspiring to see people doing what they love in real time and vulnerably sharing their creative voices for all to see – it makes me want to do the same.