“It’s all second hand wood,” says artist Elyssa Sykes-Smith, gesturing to her collection of sculptures. “Often I find piles of things that have been discarded. No one wants them and so I just pick them up.” [fold] You get a sense that the emerging artist sees possibility where the rest of us might see rubbish.

“Sometimes people donate wood to me…or Reverse Garbage is great too. They have strange bits and pieces and old frames – I really love old frames. I just get a whole selection and cut them up randomly. It’s so satisfying. I do it on particular days, if I’m in a certain frame of mind… I pop on the earplugs and the goggles and off I go. Slicing it up!”

We’re sitting in Sykes-Smith’s studio at the National Art School – a beautiful ground-floor room in one of the sandstone rotundas on the historic Darlinghurst campus. The space is littered with creative debris, sketches of planned works and scraps of inspiration, but it’s the wooden sculptures of life-sized human forms that immediately draw the eye. Sykes-Smith has developed a distinct style, creating flowing bodies out of a melange of small, sharp angled pieces of wood, the detail conveyed through the density and combination of materials.

“I’ve always loved working with the human figure,” she says. “That’s where I feel most engaged.”

By bunching wood tightly to illustrate where the muscles strain, the suggestion of movement is clear in each piece. This year her sculpture Weight pulls me down, Strength pulls me up has been selected to be part of the 16th annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Bondi, which opens this Thursday (October 18). It’s a wonderful hallmark of spring, with the cliff walk from Bondi to Tamarama dotted with an array of sculptures from a variety of artists.

“I screamed on the phone when I was notified,” she laughs. “I really didn’t expect to be selected. It was wonderful.”

Her face lights up as she pulls out a box of assorted timber pieces, turning the angles in her fingers as she describes the process of selecting a site for her work along the exhibition trail.

Right now she’s adding extra layers of varnish to the completed piece before it goes on site, where she will be working on the installation with the aid of a support team. It’s a steep learning curve, with technical requirements that she’s not come across before, but that’s all part of the challenge of an outside exhibition.

“I can’t wait till it’s up. I feel like that’s a big part of the process…to plan everything out and make sure you know what you’re doing with the technical side of things. We have to be able to install it safely…but I like being put to the test.”

Her enthusiasm is palpable, and given the beautiful location that her sculpture will be exhibited, it’s hardly surprising that she is enjoying the whole process of getting the piece ready, even if it means ending up in some odd places in her quest for that next piece of wood.

“Here at the studios just the other day, they were throwing out a lot of stuff and they had one of those huge dial-a-dumps.” She grins. “I could see right up the back some beautiful pieces of cedar wood and I thought, ‘Why didn’t they let the students get to that first?’. Of course it was on a day when I was wearing a nice dress and heels, but there I was in my pretty dress climbing into the back of the dumpster to get those pieces.

“It’s so important to enjoy the process, because you spend so much time doing it. I don’t only dream about the end product. That is important, but you spend most of your time actually involved in doing it.”

Sculpture by the Sea runs until Sunday November 4, 2012 on the Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk, Sydney.