Protagonists: Zofia Chamera

Paper challenges

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A blindfolded figure, unaware of what lies ahead, but still showing the confidence to push a foot forward, symbolizing her courage. It is the work “Shedding Fear” by Zofia Chamera, selected among the finalists of Lucca Biennale 2022. A tribute to the famous “Waltz” by Camille Claudel, the first woman to attend a formal figurative sculpture program.

Her name is Zofia Chamera, and she lives and works in Philadelphia, where she teaches sculpture as an adjunct professor.

She earned her BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2020 and her MFA in Studio Art from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 2022. Chamera’s foundation is in traditional mediums such as clay, wax, and bronze, however she recently began exploring handmade paper and how it can be applied to sculpture. She is constantly pushing the structural boundaries of this medium and with that challenging the conflict of fine art versus craft. While studying at PAFA, Chamera worked as the papermaking shop monitor and a graduate teaching assistant for figure modeling and many other courses. Her work has been shown in the National Sculpture Society Gallery in Manhattan, New York as well as local galleries in Baltimore, MD and Philadelphia, PA.

How did you start working with paper?

«During my graduate studies, my class was informed that we would not have access to the bronze foundry due to COVID-19. As a metal worker primarily, I was left feeling quite disheartened; however, I wasn’t going to allow this to stop me from progressing as an artist. Taking this as an exciting challenge, I shifted my focus to experimenting with different materials and found myself yearning to work with the mold-making process again. I dug out my molds that had been used for bronze casting and began toying with the idea of creating paper-castings using a papier mâché method. Creating my first experiments with coupon catalogs I had found off the streets of Philadelphia, I was quite pleased with how much detail the paper retained.

Shortly after, I had the pleasure of meeting Nicole Donnelly, expert papermaker for the Brodsky Center and professor at PAFA, who encouraged me to take a papermaking class to expand my practice. Experimenting with different fibers such as, flax, cotton, kozo, and abaca, I found that each has its own physical properties ranging from shrinkage, fiber size, texture, and transparency. I layer the fragile, wet sheets of paper into rubber molds to create a solid structure, which on the surface appears to be delicate, but in fact embodies the strength of any plaster or wax cast. From the scale of a true forest to an over life-sized figure, I push the structural boundaries of paper as a sculpting material. Now, allowing the process of hand papermaking to guide my work, I focus on the craft and how it breaks away from classical fine art materials.»

What do you represent in your works, what inspires you?

«Growing up I always spent countless hours out in the woods getting my hands dirty; out there I discovered the tactility of different materials, and this piqued my interest in investigating new mediums. This fascination with the natural world and my surroundings has constantly inspired my projects. I draw, sculpt, and observe from life; revealing those small surface details that tend to go unnoticed by the inexperienced eye. As my practice has evolved, research and exploration have become crucial, from studying a specific animal’s anatomy to experimenting with different fibers; my work represents the essence of life-long learning.»

Who were your artistic teachers?

«As I mentioned previously, Nicole Donnelly was the one to introduce me to handmade paper and its endless possibilities. Her course, Sculptural Papermaking, allowed me to further my understanding of paper as a medium. I completely immersed myself in researching the history of papermaking through my thesis dissertation, which ended up informing my sculptures and why I was drawn to the craft.

While I gained a lot from my studio courses, some of the most influential experiences have been apprenticing directly under professional artists, specifically Bart Walter and Jay Hall Carpenter. Working with both of them taught me the rigor and determination required to become a professional sculptress. While Mr. Walter nourished my mind as an active and life-long learner, Mr. Carpenter involved me in the process of creating life-sized monuments. I attribute much of my artistic and technical growth to my mentors and am lucky enough to have an ongoing relationship to this day.» 

What are the values that guide your art? Where do they take you?

«My work is rooted in traditional methods of sculpture which leads me to question what it means to be a woman working in this style. Constantly drawn to the figure as my subject, I explore how my view differs from the male sculptors of art history. Being in tune with my feminine perspective, I think of the lineage of female sculptors and how their approach to sculpture is gentler and more delicate. Stradling the line between fine art and craft, I hope to unite the two communities to achieve the common goal of gaining recognition within art history. I have found that through my practice that technique and process informs the conceptual part of my work; I plan to continue to research and make work based around this idea of fine art versus craft.»

Your work “Shedding Fear”: we would like to know something more, why did you choose it, how did you come to define this figure, from the drawing to the project, the materials, the techniques…

«Upon first hearing of the theme for the Lucca Biennale 2022, The White Page, I was ecstatic to submit my idea. As a figurative sculptress now working primarily with handmade paper, I am constantly pushing the structural boundaries of this medium. Whether it be on a large-scale installation of highly textured environments or a softer, more delicate portrait, the various properties of paper create a unique versatility. I’ve worked with abaca paper, which is thin with lots of texture, kozo paper, which is made of long fibers and is soft and delicate, and cotton paper, which works to maximize the structural integrity of the overall piece. Paper is highly underappreciated as a medium and I look forward to exploring more types and manipulating their properties for my work. As an artist working in paper-casting, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of its potential.» 

«Shedding Fear features a figure who is blindfolded and unaware of what lies ahead, yet she still bares the confidence to thrust one foot forward, symbolizing her courage. She inspires other women to bravely go forward, acknowledging their fear of the unknown and gathering strength both from within, and from those who have walked before them. Her dress whips and billows in the wind, a symbolic nod to Camille Claudel’s The Waltz. I chose to pay homage to Claudel for this piece as she laid the foundation for all sculptresses by being the first woman to attend a formal figurative sculpture program. Walking in her footsteps, I too hope to inspire others, and further the path for those who come after me.»

«When I started sculpting my maquette, I was immediately drawn to exemplifying paper as a medium and thought about what elements I could include that would differentiate a paper statue from a bronze one. The flowing dress, I envisioned translating perfectly into the medium because it would allow me to create areas that are thin and transparent. As the light passed through the sculpture, parts of the figure’s body were illuminated from underneath the garment. Then, the figure herself also sculpted beautifully in paper, allowing it to be smooth in delicate areas such as the face and transitioned well into the various folds of the body and skin over muscle.»

«The paper itself became an important part of the conceptual ideas present in this piece. My foundation is in using traditional mediums such as clay, wax, and bronze; however, my most creative works come from exploring non-conventional materials such as tree bark and handmade paper. Recently through my art practice, I’ve been challenging the conflict of fine art versus craft. By bringing papermaking into figurative art, I focus on how it breaks away from classical fine art materials and how craft elevates the work. With that in mind, this piece is also a symbol of ambition and endless possibilities as I take the reins in making paper sculpture as impressive and robust as bronze castings.»

 

What problems did you face in making it and how did you solve them?

«With each step of my process, I felt I was embodying the concept of Shedding Fear, taking my steps into the unknown and navigating the construction of a sculpture at this scale for the first time. One thing I learned from creating this monumental piece was that having the support of the community in Philadelphia is truly what allowed me to be successful. My peers in the MFA program were consistently there for me not only as emotional support, but also proofreading my writing and giving me feedback on my maquette. The undergraduates also were very enthusiastic about what I was doing; many of them ended up helping me by mixing plaster when it came to mold-making. I am especially grateful for Bart Walter, who lent me over two-hundred pounds of clay and Jay Hall Carpenter, who came up to Philadelphia to help me design my twenty-piece mold. I was also able to receive financial support from the Fine Arts Venture Fund, which helped cover material and shipping costs.

Having this work not only on display in Lucca, but also in Philadelphia, there were countless times women told me how moved they were by the sculpture itself. Hearing the emotion in their voices as they spoke their truths fueled me to keep working and eventually conquer the fear of constructing a sculpture of that scale. To this day, the creation of Shedding Fear has impacted the trajectory of my career; I had never dreamed that sculpture could give me international recognition. Now, I continue to think about how my sculptures can embody this same message; each proposal and piece being a symbol of me taking those steps into the unknown and inspiring others to go after their passions.»

What projects do you have now in the artistic field? Will you still work with paper?

«Currently, I am preparing the research and imagery for a series of figurative sculptures to be created and cast in handmade paper. As I mentioned earlier, my thesis research challenged the conflict of fine art versus craft. Using this to drive the conceptual ideas, my series of figurative works would highlight moments of art history where female artists were overshadowed by their male counterparts.

Shedding Fear is an example of this concept; Camille Claudel struggled to gain recognition since Auguste Rodin was making large-scaled sculptures in a similar style to hers. He is the one often remembered in art history as taking a new approach to figurative sculpture, while Claudel’s work is overlooked and even at times mistaken for Rodin’s. Researching her story during my first year of graduate school, made me curious of other moments in art history that this same overshadowing may have occurred. Regardless of her hardships, Claudel laid a foundation for all sculptresses by being the first woman to attend a formal figurative sculpture program, taking a step for women as artists. By creating a series of pieces that exhibit this same narrative, I hope to expose my audience to the lineage of female or craft artists that tend to be left out of our art history books and in a way rewrite art history.

As an artist working in paper-casting, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of its potential; continuing my experimentation feels crucial in this moment of my artistic career. I am excited to create works that exemplify paper as a medium, diving deep into the physical properties ranging from shrinkage, fiber size, texture, and transparency. I want to explore how methods such as inclusions, pulp paintings, and watermarking can be used to create imagery on the surfaces of my sculptures. Using what I know as a guide, I’m prepared to engage intensely in a new body of work that will further our collective understanding of sculptural papermaking. With this investigation I hope to create my own pedagogy and curriculum, feeling the sense of urgency to spread these techniques.»