SOFA, nation’s largest sculpture and design fair, floods Navy Pier

“Amidst all the shimmer and shine, however, I was particularly entranced by the simple and dynamic crystalline form of artist Peter Mandl…”

By Grace Hauck

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This past weekend, Navy Pier’s Festival Hall played host to the largest 3-D art exposition in the nation: the Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design (SOFA) Fair. Chicago’s longest-running annual exposition, SOFA featured over 80 galleries showcasing the best creations in ceramics, wood, textiles, glass, metal, and jewelry, as well as paintings and drawings. For its 22nd year, SOFA rolled out an impressive collection of works, attracting artists and appreciators from across the globe.

The entire hall was ablaze with light—row after row of booths, each overflowing with vases, mirrors, and display cases. It’s no wonder the show typically racks up $15–20 million in sales. To help the fairgoer navigate this overwhelming density of opulence, Fair Director Donna Davies worked with an elite team of curators, interior designers, and magazine editors to highlight selected works in the expo program.

Calderon Mizimah’s Toots Zynsky, selected by interior designer Julia Buckingham, is a 13 by 17.75 by 14 feet abstract work of ruby-red fused glass. This exquisite, naturalistic form is clam-like, with flowing curves and a sharp, delicate rim. Although the work is ambiguous in meaning and intent, it encourages the viewer to reflect on Mizimah’s sheer skill in manipulating a highly volatile medium, as do many of the glassworks at SOFA.

However, the two striking mosaics by Andrea Salvador—selected by architects Cheryl Noel and Ravi Ricker—are overtly narrative. Salvador juxtaposes colorful, traditional mosaic patterns with photorealistic, black-and-white depictions of a modern woman. She pits a colorful, tapestry-like backdrop of a medieval battle scene (knights, horses, castles, and all) against the image of a teen mom, her arms and fingers covered in tattoos. This figure gazes fiercely at the viewer, in one mosaic clutching her swollen belly and throwing the middle finger, and, in the other, holding her newborn. While, like Mizimah’s glasswork, Salvador’s mosaics remind the viewer of the artist’s incredible craftsmanship, Salvador’s pieces tell a greater story: the evolution from war in a patriarchal society to a woman’s war in the modern age.

SOFA also showcased student work in an installation competition entitled CONNECT. Groups from six internationally recognized design departments—the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, San Diego State University, University of Cincinnati, University of Iowa, and University of Massachusetts—each developed 576 ft2 installation environments inspired by the themes of industry and sustainability in Chicago. Complete with seating and lighting, these spaces provided SOFA visitors with an area to sit and “connect.” The Pratt Institute and the University of Iowa tied for the $3,000 prize: The Pratt team explored Chicago’s topographical landscape and the University of Iowa group presented a prototype of a Chicago neighborhood public space.

On Friday, professors from each of these institutions presented lectures on their students’ work. Other artists and professionals hosted lectures and workshops throughout the weekend, hitting on topics like “Community Supported Art” and “Ghetto Craft: A Place Where Poverty and Porcelain Intersect.” The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY even ran a glassblowing demonstration in the back corner of Festival Hall, where the museum had somehow managed to transport two gigantic kilns.

Amidst all the shimmer and shine, however, I was particularly entranced by the simple and dynamic crystalline form of artist Peter Mandl—a masterful work of glass entitled Madam Butterfly. This single piece of clear glass appears, at first glance, to be a long, wave-like form—a stream of tap water suddenly cut off and frozen mid-air. Upon further inspection, however, the viewer comes to recognize a female form, her hair billowing in an invisible wind as her long dress wraps around her legs. She is ghostly, yet elegant.

Whether you’re an art aficionado or simply a procrastinator looking to kill a couple hours, SOFA Chicago provides an impressive survey of 3-D art and insight into the minds of up-and-coming student designers. If you missed it this year, plan ahead for next November and join the thousands of visitors to the world’s premier sculpture and design fair—just a bus ride away from Hyde Park.