UMass Dartmouth students bring the South Coast to Chicago

Oct 26, 2018

NEW BEDFORD — Inside an empty bank in the heart of New Bedford was a temporary respite from the chaos of the outside world: A large fishing net-inspired sculpture, created by a team of students from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The bank was the temporary home of “Catch and Release,” an interactive sculpture students created for the Chicago Sculpture Objects Functional Art (SOFA) exposition, which was briefly on display in New Bedford on the afternoon of Oct. 26.

The expo, attended by more than 35,000 people, features three dimensional art and design. It’s also the site of a prestigious design competition: SOFA Connect. Colleges are invited to design spaces for people attending the expo to connect, talk, and take a break.

UMass Dartmouth was one of six colleges chosen  from hundreds of proposals to compete. The project began in the spring, as Professor Jim Lawton helped 12 students of varying disciplines brainstorm for the college’s proposal, and in the fall, another group of students brought that concept to life.

This is the third year UMass Dartmouth students have participated in SOFA Connect, and each year students have looked to New Bedford’s industrial history for inspiration: Whale oil lights, textile mills, and now, fishing traps.

“We wanted to bring New Bedford to Chicago, so we deconstructed a fishing net or trap,” said Tess Oldfield, one of the students working on the project since last spring. “We’re hoping people will go through like a school of fish.”

The sculpture guides visitors through an arched doorway along a netted barrier towards a circular, three dimensional screen on which animations are projected. The animations are meant to mimic the experience of looking up from the ocean floor at the surface of the water.

“This is the first time it’s been all structured together,” said student Melissa Hacunda.

She explained that the class worked through many ideas before settling on their final design, loosely inspired by woven eel traps. Then, students had to figure out how to bring it to life. The group tried working with PVC pipes, bamboo, and fiberglass rods, before settling on plywood, sailcloth, and soccer nets.

Lawton said the class was one of the most challenging of his teaching career. 

“It’s not like you stand at the front of the class and say ‘This is how you do it,’” Lawton said. “You’re really teaching group dynamics.”

The class looked at how punk bands and design groups worked together and make decisions. That research dovetailed in a surprising way with the research the class was conducting on fishing traps. Lobsters will follow each other into a trap for company.

“They don’t need bait, they just need togetherness,” Lawton said. “That’s what draws them in.”

The group hopes the sculpture will work the same way.

SOFA Chicago runs from November 1 through 4 on the Navy Pier. To support the students’ travel and material expenses, go to, select College of Visual and Performing Arts, and write “SOFA” in the gift instructions box.