When Sunday Mahaja was a young man living in Nigeria, his father explained to him the idea of love by comparing it to a butterfly.
“Butterflies are fragile,” his father explained. “If you hold it too tight, you squash it and kill it. But if you hold it too loose, it will fly away.”
Today, Mahaja is a recent Goshen College graduate and sculpture artist who has pieces in roughly a dozen homes, office buildings, and institutions around the region. Even now, his father’s words resonate with him in every piece of art he creates.
“I tie my father’s words into my work,” he said. “For example, I built a sculpture for a woman who lost her mother and her brother at the same time. She wanted something to honor them in a memorial garden, so I made a butterfly for each life.”
Mahaja uses recycled scrap metal to create figures including birds, flowers and other wildlife, as well as the human form. His pieces are both delicate and larger than life, meaningful and humorous, aesthetic and practical.
Their purpose, Mahaja says, is to commemorate his past and explain the present.
“I take people’s stories and put them into my work,” he said. “I want to retell the stories that have existed and still exist – like the stories of indigenous groups that are being phased out because of industry or climate change – and draw people’s attention to them.”
In addition to telling stories with his artwork, Mahaja wants to make his work usable. For example, past sculptures have included a giant squirrel that doubles as a bird feeder, a human figure holding a lantern that functions as a mailbox, and an ornate floral tree that’s actually a wine holder.
“I wanted to make sculptures functional,” he said. “If you like the way it looks, you will love it. If you can use it, you will love it even more.”
The magic of mentorship
When Mahaja moved to Goshen to attend Goshen College with an athletic scholarship in 2010, he knew he wanted to study art, but didn’t know which medium. He started focusing his energy on painting, but after taking a number of sculpture classes with professor and prolific sculptor John Mishler, Mahaja changed direction.
With encouragement from faculty and friends, Mahaja decided to dedicate his life to sculpture.
“John [Mishler] is one of my greatest supporters,” said Mahaja. “I always talk to him about new things I’m thinking or asking him for advice. He’s a good mentor.”
His professors, Mahaja said, showed him that it was possible to find work as an artist in this community.
“[Goshen College] professors don’t just teach art – they practice it,” he said. “Learning from them is what broadened my horizon as an artist. I had the opportunity to learn from people who were a part of the art business, and it made me believe I could do it, too.”
Even after graduating, Mahaja feels deep support from the community at Goshen College.
“The resources are there, the support is there, the mentors are there,” he said. “You don’t have to go to a big city to find out how artists are living. Because of Goshen College, you can see it right here in Goshen.”
“This community wants to see my business grow”
While still working a day job and taking classes, Mahaja launched his own successful sculpture business, Mahaja Arts.
Along with his wife Suzanne (Miller) Mahaja, Sunday operates the business from his home near the Goshen Dam Pond. Mahaja creates his pieces in his garage, operates an office in the house, and displays his pieces in his front yard – attracting attention, awe, and occasionally the patronage of many a passerby.
Mahaja is beginning to grow a strong client base in Goshen and surrounding communities like South Bend. He has created custom sculptures for Goshen College and Indiana University Health Goshen, and has had work accepted into prestigious art shows including ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For much of his success, Mahaja nods to the community.
“The Goshen community has supported me 110 percent,” he said. “If they weren’t so supportive, I would be long gone. What really got me going in art was the people in this community.”
“Even people who haven’t bought my work tell me what inspires them,” he continued. “They keep in touch with me, and some have become friends. This community wants to see my business grow.”
“The Goshen community has supported me 110 percent.”
“This community wants to see my business grow.”
“I had the opportunity to learn from people who were a part of the art business, and it made me believe I could do it, too.”