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Thinking Inside the Box

The 10th International Shoebox Sculpture Exhibition compels artists around the world to create good things in small packages.


"Icarus Cycle," by artist Terry Kreiter

Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii Art Gallery

Think you have enough shoeboxes in your closet? Try being Lisa Yoshihara, director of the University of Hawaii Art Gallery. Every three years, another 12 dozen of them come through the mail. It’s a good thing they don’t all contain shoes.

This month, the gallery mounts its 10th International Shoebox Sculpture Exhibition, a triennial show open to 3-D art in any medium, on any subject. Its lone requirement is that every piece must fit neatly inside a space that’s 4.5" X 7" X 12"—a shoebox. “When we get the packages, it’s like Christmas around here,” says Yoshihara. “We can’t wait to unwrap them because we never know what’s going to be inside.”

What’s crossed her desk this time around: 141 pieces from artists all over the world, including a tiny African elephant sporting a hand-knitted sweater, a miniature magnetic rendering of the world’s most famous buildings and an abstract shape made entirely with plumbing parts. There is also, inevitably, some footwear in the mix, but with a twist: Try an exquisitely crafted Asian porcelain foot—or is it a shoe?—that can’t be described as anything other than an arch.

The brainchild of prominent local sculptors Fred Roster and Mamoru Sato, the exhibit began in 1982 as a sustainable way to stage and tour a major international show on the planet’s most remote archipelago. The exhibition’s signature guideline was born of practical necessity: How do you move three-dimensional contemporary art from multiple continents for thousands of miles without breaking the bank, and possibly the art?

"Flicker," by Bernice Akamine, a Kaneohe artist.

Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii Art Gallery

The answer: Operate on the flea-circus principle, with all the fun, and far fewer practical roadblocks to travel. The entire shoebox show takes up a tiny fraction of a shipping container, and can fit in the back of a small truck. “It travels in nine crates, which are sized so that two people can pick the whole thing up,” says Yoshihara.

But its reputation is larger than life. Featuring internationally prominent artists as well as a significant contingent of local artists, it is a “flagship show for our whole state,” says Yoshihara. “It has a major reputation. Throughout the year, we get inquiries from artists all over the world: ‘When are you doing your next shoebox?’”

Smaller, more travel-friendly art also means more diversity. The artists participating in this year’s show hail from 31 states and 16 countries, including Finland, France, Taiwan and Chile. Some pieces are interactive, inviting you to open the box or turn the crank and watch what happens. Some are personal statements, some political. Some are just weird and beautiful.

Yoshihara says it’s by far the gallery’s most popular exhibition, attracting artists, school groups and everyone in between: “People love the Shoebox.”

For more information, visit: www.hawaii.edu/artgallery/shoebox.


University of Hawaii Art Gallery

2535 McCarthy Mall

Shoebox sculpture exhibition
runs Mar. 5 to Apr. 13.
Monday through Friday
10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m.
Closed Saturdays and holidays



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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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