EPS Foam and The Sugary Sphinx

It was a monumental although short-lived art project. Created by artist Kara Walker and presented by Creative Time, the temporary exhibition was seen by over 130,000 people in the nine weekends it was open in the Domino Sugar factory located in Brooklyn, NY. This exhibition was to be the last inhabitant of the Sugar Factory that was built in 1882 and is scheduled to be razed in demolition and redeveloped into apartments.

Kara Walker EPS foam sculpture in Domino Sugar Refinery

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

The only thing that remains of this ironic, contradicting, epic sphinx is her left hand, which is configured in a way that perhaps suggests her send off to society. The irony of this sculpture was captured by an article in The New Yorker. “Measuring approximately seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet high, the sculpture is white. A mammy-as-sphinx made out of bleached sugar, which is a metaphor and reality. Remember, sugar is brown in its “raw” state. Walker, in a very informative interview with Kara Rooney, says that she read a book called “Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History.” There, she learned that sugar was such a commodity that, in the 11th century, marzipan sculptures were created by the sultans in the East to give to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe, eventually, where royal chefs made sugar sculptures called subtleties. Walker was taken not only with those stories but with the history of the slave trade in America: Who cut the sugar cane? Who ground it down to syrup? Who bleached it? Who sacked it?”

There is much thought, inspiration and research to Ms. Walker’s sphinx-like monument she calls:


A Subtlety. EPS Sculpture created by artist Kara Walker

or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant


What was the medium of choice for this epic piece of art? EPS foam (Expanded Polystyrene) blocks were supplied by Digital Atelier in Mercerville, NJ and manufactured by Insulation Company of America located in Allentown, PA. Digital Atelier was challenged by Kara Walker and Creative Time, the sponsors of the project, to come up with a way to produce this monumental sculpture that not only satisfied the artist’s aesthetics but also complied with a very strict time frame. Digital Atelier was able to laser scan a 12-inch model made by the artist and mill an 8-foot version in foam. This model was refined by Kara Walker at her studio and then scanned again to enlarge to the 75-foot version. The engineers at Digital Atelier then segmented the 3D model into 330 sections as if these were large blocks that could be stacked and built like the original sphinx. A collaborative team was formed for the NY installation that could take the fine milled and rough milled foam and complete any additional modeling on site. Forty blocks of EPS foam were transported to the site every third day for six weeks. That is a total of over 330 blocks that were stacked, glued, and sculpted into Ms. Walker’s creation and then covered in a sugary glaze.

Upon completion of the exhibition, Art Domantay, Project Consultant and Director of Fabrication, was mindful of the environmental impact of disposing of the EPS foam and carefully “deglazed” the blocks in order for ICA, Insulation Company of America, to recycle the material.

EPS – the Extraordinary Product Solution – from artwork to roadways to insulation. The uses of this simple product are simply endless.

What can EPS foam do for your next project?

Learn more about Kara Walker on Artsy.net 


Kara Walker at Domino – May 10 through July 6 from Creative Time on Vimeo.


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This article was posted on August 21, 2014, by Insulation Corporation of America (ICA) – a Women-Owned manufacturer of Geofoam and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), which is commonly but mistakenly referred to as Styrofoam™. ICA is located in Allentown, PA and services the entire Mid-Atlantic Region from Virginia to Maine to Ohio.