Transforming waste into art has been the niche of Mon Halsey, 39, for years. She has held five solo exhibitions featuring her artwork and also hosts a program on MITV about recycled arts and crafts. The artist and writer talked with Grace Tun about her approach to art and use of recycled materials.
Tell me about your background.
I didn’t have a background related to art. But ever since I was young, I liked creating things. I would cut paper and make toys at home. When I grew a bit older, I gave handmade objects as gifts to my friends. Another thing was that I wanted to decorate my own home, but paintings and sculptures were very expensive to buy, so I created things of my own to make my home beautiful. When my friends came over and saw the art, they suggested I hold an exhibition, and without realizing it, I had entered the artistic field. So I didn’t have any kind of education in art, but it’s something I enjoy and I gradually made more time for it.
Why did you start your career as an artist?
Producing art is my hobby, and I wanted to pursue it as a career. Of course, everyone has hobbies, but if you choose to be serious about it and pursue it with determination, you can make a career out of it. Art is my passion, and I’m not going to give up on it. But I’m not sure if I can describe it as a career because I don’t gain any profit from it. I do get back the money I invested into my exhibitions, so there’s no loss, but there’s no profit either. There are times though, when I get money for decorating events such as weddings. Even then, it’s only something I do for acquaintances rather than a business.
Your art often encompasses recycled materials. Why do you do this? And what are your thoughts about the waste and pollution situation in Myanmar?
Recycling is such an important process, especially in a country like Myanmar which isn’t rich or developed yet. You might remember the fire at the garbage dump not too long ago; the burning plastic could be smelt throughout the city. That garbage dump contains everyone’s trash, including mine and yours. I researched about how I can recycle this trash rather than throw it away. Take plastic toys, for instance. One of my artworks features plastic toy soldiers, and gives a message about the effects of war. If lots of these had been thrown away, they would have made the land unfertile for more than a hundred years. But by using them this way, I can give a message to the audience and help the environment at the same time. I want people to know that the trash they throw away can be turned into beautiful pieces of art which doesn’t cause harm to the environment. You can even make handmade gifts for your friends using recycled materials. If you are willing to try, you can make beautiful things out of trash.
How often do you produce art?
I don’t have a fixed schedule for when to finish a piece of art. I create when I feel inspired so I don’t force myself to follow a schedule. When I have upcoming exhibitions, however, it’s a different matter. I work tirelessly day and night, without even resting. But for now, I’m taking a break. And it’s the rainy season so I can’t do anything either; the paper mâché won’t dry and it’s difficult to go outside and collect trash.
Can you describe a typical day of work in your studio?
Well, let me describe a typical day before my exhibitions. Before each exhibition, I always keep a file containing my plan and layout for the show. I decide on the show’s theme, and brainstorm ideas for artwork related to that theme. Usually my theme is centered around recycling trash, so I decide what kind of items I need for that theme, and collect trash accordingly. During those times, I keep track of the things I need to get done for the exhibition. I also write descriptions on each piece of artwork, including information on how long it took to create the piece and how I created it.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I get inspiration when I go outside. I look around and think about what sorts of things I can make with the material around me. I also look at websites…there’s this artist I really admire from China. Her work isn’t centered on recycled materials but I get lots of ideas from her installation work. I look at these and try to make similar things with recycled materials.
Could you describe and explain a favorite piece of your art?
It’s difficult to say because I like almost all of my artwork [laughs], but if I had to choose, it’s a painting I made for my husband, Ron. It’s a form of mixed media art that I made using photocopied pictures of a Buddha statue which I enlarged, along with pieces of monk robes. I gave it to him after we were married, so it has a lot of sentimental value.
What kind of challenges do you face in pursuing this career?
When creating installation art, I need a workforce. I have to collect a lot of trash and materials such as tree branches to make my art pieces, and that’s difficult to do on my own. I had to collect 1,500 plastic bottles for my last exhibition while also choosing the right shapes and sizes, so I need help from others in that aspect.
Have your family and surroundings always been supportive of your work?
No. [Laughs] They always get mad whenever I bring a pile of trash into the house for my art. My home is probably cluttered with my artwork, especially before exhibitions. But they do appreciate what I do. As for when I was younger, I don’t think my family really noticed my interest in art, and probably didn’t think I’d have a career in it or become this successful.
What kind of plans do you have for the nearby future?
I’m currently thinking of plans for another exhibition featuring recycled crafts, but I can’t start working on it until the rainy season is over.
What’s one of the most important things you’ve learnt from your experience?
I don’t think I have received that important of a moral or lesson from my experience so far. But I do have a message that I want to give to the public whenever I create artwork: to reduce, reuse and recycle, and know that that the trash you throw away can be turned into something more useful.
What advice would you give to young people who want to become artists?
Just pursue your hobby. If you have something you are crazy about, you should definitely hold on to it. If you genuinely have an interest in art, don’t give it up, and make time for it. If you do that, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in art, or basically anything you want to be.