Some full-time artists might wince at being referred to as “the cardboard guy”. Not Jeff McCann.

“I hate waste,” says the Sydney-based artist. “For the past eight years I’ve been developing my practice around the whole idea of sustainability and using materials that aren’t considered high-end – essentially rubbish – and transforming those materials into something of value again.”

With great success. This year he’s the artist behind A Very Surry Hills Christmas, held on December 16 at Shannon Reserve. The one-day event includes a range of bespoke works featuring his iconic “eye” design – from candy canes to wreaths and enormous Christmas Trees.

McCann got his start in cardboard-based art when studying theatre and television design at uni in Wagga Wagga. “I was a poor uni student who couldn’t afford materials,” he says. “After uni I kept experimenting with cardboard and developed my resumé. I began working with local councils and art galleries on exhibitions and projects.”

In 2012 he made the move to Sydney. “Once I worked out, ‘Yes, I’m the cardboard guy’, [that was] when I knew I was ready to come to Sydney and try to find my world here.” He did, creating costumes and sculptures and activating spaces at festivals, as well as running market stalls. “That’s my customer – the festivalgoer,” he says. “People who want to wear crazy earrings and crazy costumes.”

At Parramatta music festival The Plot, McCann created a chandelier from “collateral” repurposed from the previous year. At this year’s Spilt Milk festival in Canberra he was creative feature artist and worked on everything from branding and main stage decorations to site sculptures and body art. “The idea was to create a ‘Jeff’s World’ for the whole festival,” he says. “It’s really exciting but daunting at the same time to see all my work at such a large scale.”

Part of McCann’s mission is to challenge the way people think about what they throw away. “My first goal is to make work that is fun and approachable,” he says. “I never want to put sustainability at the very front of my work, because I don’t think it’s the most effective way to educate my audience.”

McCann has applied the principles of sustainability to his designs for A Very Surry Hills Christmas. The centrepieces of the event are two of his “Christmas trees” – three-metre-tall pyramids made from steel and aluminium. He was happy to use a material other than cardboard for the trees, provided they wouldn’t be discarded after the event.

“I never want something to be made to last for just one event and then get pushed to the side or turned into rubbish,” he says. The plan is to allow local organisations to reuse the pyramids for their own events after December 16. “They are made to last forever.”

A bold, stylised eye recurs as a visual motif throughout McCann’s designs for the Surry Hills Christmas event. He says it’s a symbol to “just create, just be your own artist. When I was younger, I’d always draw and paint thinking you had to be a realistic artist. You’d sit there trying to draw your own eye, and it would look great, and you’d try to draw your second eye and it would always be a bit skewy.”

His “aha moment” was realising it was okay to take a step away from realism and create an eye in his own aesthetic. “You don’t have to be a traditional artist,” he says. “You can do whatever you want.”

A one-off Surry Hills inspired wrapping paper has been designed exclusively for the event and shoppers can take advantage of complimentary gift-wrapping for purchases made from local stores on the day. McCann’s legacy will be on full display. “It’s going to be a very tribal, psychedelic Christmas,” he says.

A Very Surry Hills Christmas is on Saturday December 16 at Shannon Reserve, Crown Street, Surry Hills from 9am to 5pm,

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with City of Sydney. Use #sydxmas to share your photos of A Very Surry Hills Christmas.