The Philly Puff blows up the Portside Community Arts Festival

Emily Eggly, Shannon Jones, Jessica Clark, and Emily Phillips pose with Alfred Pork Chop. Image via

The Philly Puff might just be one of Philadelphia’s most zany and best-kept secrets. Now in its second year, the Philly Puff is an inflatable sculpture contest held at the Portside Arts Center’s Portside Community Arts Festival, formerly known as the Lehigh Avenue Arts Festival. An inflatable sculpture is akin to a balloon in a parade, but tethered to the ground. The inflatable sculpture entries that will be displayed will be an ephemeral experience, like a pop-up sculpture garden. The Philly Puff presents an opportunity for those who want to try their hand at something creative and a little weird, in the same vein as the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby at the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival.

Beyond moon bounces

Portside Arts Center assistant director Jenna Wilchinsky came up with the idea of the Philly Puff in a brainstorming session with fellow artists Ginger Metzger and Genevieve Geer. The Festival is a typically family-friendly event with activities geared toward children, and the three wanted to think up a way to make it more unique and more appealing to artists and adults without children. An inflatable sculpture contest seemed to fit well with the usual Festival offerings of arts and crafts, moon bounces, food trucks, and artist-vendors.

While inflatable sculptures might seem esoteric, they are an art form taught at a handful of art schools around the country. And even if you’re not an artist, Wilchinsky insists that inflatable sculptures are not difficult to make — all it takes is a bit of research. Artists and non-artists alike can participate by themselves or in a team to create any kind of sculpture they’d like. The sculptures will be judged by Darla Jackson, owner of the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym, and two representatives of her choosing, in categories including Best in Show, Best Craftsmanship, Best Use of Materials, Best in Motion, and People’s Choice.

No wacky wavers

“We have categories to help the artists get their ideas flowing,” Wilchinsky said, but there is no set theme. Instead, the judges will look for precision in the artists’ techniques; innovative uses of medium, such as all recycled materials; and type of motion. But, as Winchinsky explained, “The sculptures can’t be wacky wavers, like those inflatable guys.” Sculptures must also stay inflated for the two hour duration of the contest and may not use support structures. The winners of the Philly Puff will receive cash prizes, gift cards, and inflatable trophies handmade by Wilchinsky herself. Last year, she crafted inflatable belts for the winners in each category.

The victorious Alfred Pork Chop

Last year’s contest included entries such as a crashing World War II plane, a giant face, and a pig named Alfred Pork Chop, which won Best in Show and Best Use of Materials. Alfred Pork Chop’s creators were Emily Eggly, Shannon Jones, Jessica Clark, and Emily Phillips, then students in a sculpture class at Moore College of Art and Design.

“When working with inflatables, it’s important to design using soft, rounded forms,” said Eggly, who compared the design of Alfred Pork Cop to a stuffed animal pattern. The team recommended making a solid pattern and a model of the sculpture before starting on the construction of the sculpture itself.

For resources and ideas, interested contestants can attend the informational workshop at the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym on Thursday, March 19. Three of last year’s winners will talk about what materials they used, how they thought of their concepts, and what challenges they ran into.

Registration for entries in the Philly Puff is open until April 25. Early bird registration is $20 per entry until March 20, and after that it’s $25.

To see the Philly Puff in all its glory, stop by the Portside Community Arts Festival at Penn Treaty Park on April 25 from 2 to 4pm. Afterward, all the sculptures are taken down. “Alfred Pork Chop was humanely recycled,” said Jones.

At right: 2014 Best Craftsmanship winner Eduardo Correll and his sculpture. Image via 

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