Zofia Chamera (MFA ’22) Writes a New Story on White Pages and Paper

For her culminating work at PAFA, Zofia Chamera (MFA ’22) created Shedding Fear, a 7-foot paper figure which debuted at the Annual Student Exhibition in the spring of 2022 and then showed in Italy two months later for the Lucca Biennale, an art, architecture, and design exhibition dedicated to paper.

Zofia Chamera (MFA ’22) has a strong background in metal sculpture techniques like casting and welding. She knew that PAFA’s curriculum and faculty (all active artists themselves), would provide her with the next steps in figurative sculpture training she craved. She looked forward to using PAFA’s foundry facilities to improve her bronze work and prepare for what was next. What she didn’t expect, however, was to find a whole new direction in a much more delicate material: handmade paper.

Zofia entered PAFA in Fall 2020, but was challenged when the ongoing pandemic made it impossible for her to access the foundry. She had to find other options. “It was this moment of ‘I want to work in this way, but what do I cast in?’ Which is when I landed on paper,” says the artist.

Papermaking Experts at the Brodsky Center at PAFA

For an early project, Zofia collected newspapers from neighbors in South Philadelphia, which she laid into rubber molds with glue, and was surprised at how much detail the paper could retain from the mold. She met PAFA faculty Nicole Donnelly, papermaker at the Brodsky Center at PAFA, who recommended a sculptural paper class where Zofia learned to make her own paper for the first time.

Among other mediums, Zofia is drawn to natural materials, including tree bark, and says, “Now that I see my body of work, using paper makes sense to me.” She has always been fascinated by the process of creating, as much as the final product. Making her own paper and thus all elements of her piece from start to finish has allowed her to be even more involved in the process.

Graduate Professional Practices Support

Now, papermaking has led to one of the most significant experiences of Zofia’s career: a residency in Italy as one of six artists chosen for the Lucca Biennale. “I don’t think I ever would have applied for something like this unless I was there at PAFA,” she reflects. Instead, a graduate-level course called “Studio and Beyond” encouraged Zofia and her fellow students to research fellowship and residency opportunities, among other post-graduate activities. She found the call for entries when browsing online and quickly realized that past selections were in the same vein as the representational paper figures she was creating. She was also drawn to that year’s theme of “The White Page,” representing unknown, new possibilities. “It was a very general theme, but it evolved to be much more than that,” says Zofia, who further described her “Shedding Fear” as a blindfolded female figure bravely stepping one foot forward despite not knowing what lies ahead.

“It was this leap of faith almost, and my idea was that she was meant to inspire other women to go bravely forward, acknowledging their fear of the unknown and gathering strength both from within and from those who walked before them.”  

A woman wearing a black and white spotted dress holds a certificate, standing in front of figure sculpture
The artist poses in front of "Shedding Fear" at the Lucca Biennale
Large gallery space display full figurative sculpture with torso sculpture and casts of tree stumps on the wall
Shedding Fear displayed at the Annual Student Exhibition in Philadelphia
(also shown: Mother Earth, 24” x 18” x 40”, Handmade Kozo Paper with Thread inclusions;
Cascading Trees, Collector's Home Installation, Handmade Abaca, Cotton, Flax, and Kozo Paper)

PAFA's Fine Arts Venture Fund

The residency’s application process was intense, requiring in-depth planning, multiple rounds, and her first experience shipping a maquette, or scale model, safely overseas. But coming out the other side, Zofia found she had an extremely clear vision for the piece and how to excite others about its concept. All of this preparation allowed her to make another compelling application to PAFA’s Fine Arts Venture Fund, which ultimately awarded her funds to produce the full-size sculpture for Lucca, as well as the Annual Student Exhibition, where it debuted.

“I am forever grateful for the Fine Arts Venture fund. Without that support, I really don't think I would have been able to create the physical piece,” she says, noting the materials and scale of the sculpture.

With funding in place and her residency finalized, Zofia faced the only challenge to remain—the build. “With every step, it was kind of like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know what I’m doing. I was terrified, but I knew I had to produce the piece,” says Zofia, looking back on the five months she spent building the life-sized sculpture, a process which took a twenty-piece mold and a village of supporters.

Community of Artist Peers

In addition to guidance from her longtime mentors in Bart Walter and Jay Hall Carpenter and Brodsky faculty Donnelly, fellow MFA students pitched in to mix materials, bring her lunch in the studio, or just provide emotional support. Undergraduates who knew her as a TA helped where they could too.

“They were just very enthusiastic about what I was doing, so they would come over and ask, ‘What do you need?’ It became this community thing which was really beautiful,” Zofia remembers.

“I thought I would graduate and get a teaching position. That’s kind of why I went to grad school. I never really saw myself being a practicing artist full-time.” Despite initial doubts about being too young, competing against an international pool of artists, or thinking this path wasn’t for her, Zofia is excited about the new trajectory of her career following “Shedding Fear.” “It was like the piece was symbolizing me too. I felt like I was constantly taking that step into the unknown,” she says. “Now, each day I remind myself that anything is possible.”

—Diana Wensley, contributing writer

Woman splattered with plaster works on assembling large figurative statue
The artist at work on "Shedding Fear" at PAFA
Unfinished sculpture of woman displayed next to wire sculpture of same figure
A wire frame informed some of the sculpture-making process

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the United States’ first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers a world-class collection of American art, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and educational opportunities in the fine arts. The PAFA Museum aims to tell America's diverse story through art, expanding who has been included in the canon of art history through its collections, exhibitions, and public programs, while classes educate artists and appreciators with a deep understanding of traditions and the ability to challenge conventions. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.