“I learned how to become the artist that I want to be, by allowing things to happen. By being persistent about what I want to do, what I want to say, and not letting it go.”
Recently named to Newcity’s “Art 50” list of top Chicago Artists, Edra Soto is everywhere. In the coming year you can see her work here in Chicago at Sector 2237, The Arts Club of Chicago, UIC Galleries, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Beyond our city limits, Soto’s work is on display at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, and the Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte, la Universidad de Puerto Rico.
As the title of Soto’s ongoing series GRAFT suggests, she brings together a variety of artists, collaborators, community, and education, sustaining all of these elements with one force–her practice.
from Relocating Techniques, 2016 by artist Edra Soto
MEV LUNA: You have a very dynamic practice that takes the form of curation, design, performance and installation – would you like to speak to that?
EDRA SOTO: I have a practice that weaves between being an organizer and a maker. I seek to be inclusive in my own personal art practice, and the curatorial work is the consequence of doing this. For example, with The Franklin, my gallery and project space, I consider this to be part of my practice. I was seeking to create a space where you can congregate people and bring together different disciplines. But I guess I am, as you would call it, someone who wears different hats. That would be me!
ML: What I am hearing also, is that you don’t see them as separate. Is this correct?
ES: They are not too distant, no. I think they all allow me to foster different kinds of communities that eventually can be a part of a unit or project. It’s a way of forging relationships.
ML: So let’s start with The Franklin.
ES: This is good because I feel that everything started with The Franklin here in Chicago. Before The Franklin, I already had a practice where I tried to be inclusive, to bring people together through performance or interactive installation work. But then, The Franklin became something that consolidated all of these ideas. When I was at the School of the Art Institute, I did a project called I Love Chicago Project which addressed my relationship to the weather and other things that were new to me. It allowed me to invite people from different disciplines to come to my installation and perform. So I created a kind of theatrical space and adopted a character–a ringleader–and used decorative ceramic lions to allude to the institution (SAIC). I came up with the idea after being here for a year and walking around the school and learning about different disciplines and meeting artists. My goal was to showcase their work inside my work. So I think that piece was really the being of The Franklin. Or the idea of gathering different disciplines within one space.
ML: And when did you and Dan Sullivan start The Franklin?
ES: We started the space in 2012. By that time, my husband had helped me with a few of my installations. I had just got invited to do an exhibition at Northeastern Illinois University. They gave me a year to prepare and said I could do what I want. So I said to Dan, ‘I think it’s time we collaborate as intellectual partners. A collaboration in which we talk about ideas and how we can execute those ideas together and what it will mean to us.’ At first, we talked about things that were not that practical. You know, like making a huge installation of some kind. But for me, after doing so many installation pieces that then would have to be stored or recycled, I don’t enjoy that part of the artmaking. I told him I really want to create something we can keep, that it should be practical in some way.
I had always nagged him about doing an exhibition space inside our house and he wasn’t happy about that. He was like, ‘No way!’ We are not going to have our space constantly transformed and interrupted. We won’t have any privacy. But I had this anxiety, I really wanted to create a space to bring artists together. Eventually, after talking about it more, we decided the backyard would be a great space because it stays outside. Then there would be the option for people to come in, see our house, and our collection.
We happen to have an art collection that is the result of our relationships with all these artists throughout the years. Much like The Franklin, which is the result of all those relationships and the influence of having started my career within the artist-run culture here in Chicago. There were so many alternative spaces that gave me opportunities to have exhibitions. Eventually, I got an exhibition at the MCA and that validation made me realize the importance of these alternative spaces. Which is huge, alternative spaces can promote your work and allow you to do what you want, to make what you want. You don’t really have to configure to anything. You don’t have to make a product. So I made a lot of things that were fun and practical and how I please. I understood the value of that independence as well. And that’s the kind of space I think of when I think about The Franklin. It’s a place where you have restrictions, but you have great amounts of freedom. And I think the restrictions mostly come from the amount of space, you know, it’s not huge, but it does have walls and they can even be removed to create a space that has a different character. How The Franklin works, how malleable the space can be, that was all part of the design.
When conceiving of The Franklin, I felt I had the advantage of having participated in so many kinds of alternative models already. So when it came to make my own model I had all those examples. For me, the biggest questions to answer were, ‘What can we make that becomes a contribution to this scene? And to consider, what has already been established? What are all the different models and what can we create that is contributing rather than repeating?’ So we thought about the outdoor element, you know there’s not many outdoor exhibition spaces. With the kind of weather that we have [laughs] you know it’s challenging, but it’s also very interesting. It’s unique, it’s a characteristic of the city – everybody knows it’s temperamental.
ML: Ha, yes! Well, even though it is outside, the gallery space is still inside, right?
ES: Yeah definitely. We have a roof, a ventilation system and six walls. The walls and the roof help maintain the integrity of the work that is inside, but I think artists need to really take the outdoor component into consideration when they show at The Franklin. It’s also something that can be explored in their work. And hopefully it’s an additional element to perhaps motivate a new set of ideas.
ML: Can you talk a little about that and your curatorial practice as it relates to artists that you’ve known?
ES: I think it’s important to talk about that because it’s definitely about relationships that I have made, but I guess I should remark that it’s not necessarily friends. I have a lot of artist friends, but there’s all kinds of relationships. There are colleagues, artists that I admire, artists that I want to be a part of the project and invite, artists that approach me and send their proposals. I don’t have a call for artists or post anything like that. I just let it happen. I want to work with people that are interested and would like to get involved. I want the artist to know what they are getting into, understand our philosophy, our intention and come to our space. We want to support a wide range of practices.
One of the ways that I create community is through residencies. That’s a really great way of meeting new artists from different cities and places. The Franklin has allowed me to bring one or two artists that I have met that way. I see The Franklin as a way of maintaining a connection with all these different kinds of relationships I have made throughout the years. It’s a really great way of hosting the artist and supporting their projects.
ML: Absolutely, I think there is a lot of value in the way that artists support each other. So much grows out of long term relationships, right? It really can be, ‘Oh I was over here and we were working on this thing and then that moved to this other project that’s over here now.’ That sort of fluidity yields the relationships and the work a level of depth and provides more room for experimentation, you know?
ES: Not only that, but say I was to show only local artists, then it would be that. It would be a local thing. But it can be so much more, because that’s the kind of career I am cultivating for myself. So that’s also the portrait I want to create with The Franklin, to be the kind of space where there’s all these different artists at all different levels of careers. Also, I think it makes it more desirable for artists that have a serious practice to consider the space as something that gives their work a valuable platform. It has taken effort on my part to bring great people to come, and that starts setting the tone–wow this is happening here. We’re serious, we truly are. We want to be supportive of all different kinds of art and at the same time, we want people to get there’s a serious undertone here. We are doing it because we love it and we like to think that this can exist in any place and that artists have control of this as well.
ML: You know, I am really interested in artists from Latin America and the diaspora. The question of what does it mean to leave, what does it mean to return? A process that can happen over one or many generations, at times by choice and other times forcibly. I’m curious how you relate to that because you grew up in Puerto Rico and studied art there. What is it about Chicago that kept you here?
ES: I can start with my relationship to Puerto Rico. I grew up there and did my elementary and high school at Catholic school and I think that influenced me a lot. Things that are related to the format of the church—congregation, the symmetry of the architecture, the staging of events—all these things I feel are directly related to my practice. Definitely it had nothing to do with being indoctrinated. You know there are the things that look and feel nice, and then there is the reality of those things. The terrible reality of the church is so embarrassing and horrible that I don’t want to be associated with that. After high school I attended Escuela de Artes Plastics de Puerto Rico and fell in love with that place. Soon after I was represented by a commercial gallery, and then I won a fellowship for Puerto Rican artists to live and travel in Paris for a year. That year was amazing and when I came back I realized that Puerto Rico was not the last place in the world for me. Through the gallery, I learned about this other artist represented by the gallery, Arnaldo Roche, and they told me that he went to the Art Institute and that I should go there.
As for Puerto Rico, I think I was never 100 % compatible. I admire my culture and I think I have more appreciation now than what I used to have. But I was always very curious about the outside world. As much as I love and hate some parts of Puerto Rico, I just knew that I had to go. I really found a home here.
ML: What made it home in that way?
ES: I think what made it my home was realizing I could navigate the city easily, by train or car. And I found I was able to understand myself as an artist. Chicago provided all these choices that I felt I had as someone who wanted to initiate ideas, or wanted to navigate outside the grid of the normal. I really never pursued a commercial career after that time in Puerto Rico with Galeria Botello. It’s just not what I’ve focused my energy on. I’ve put my energy in projects that fulfill what I want to say, that have a real life connection. I also felt a great interest in education through art. So it made perfect sense to teach because I believe it is a really important way of passing on what became meaningful to me. I think that my career as an artist has changed so many ways. Perhaps now, I feel that I am at some kind of crossroads in which I am not sure what is going to happen. All I know is that I want to continue pursuing my art career.
The first year that I completely left working for other people, I have never worked so hard. This is a really hard career. I have very strong feelings about that, because it doesn’t only depend on you–it depends on so many factors. And I don’t think I can get away from it either.
ML: I want to hear more about your current practice and most recent projects. What are you working on?
ES: There’s a project called GRAFT that I recently exhibited in New York. I have done many iterations of this project, the first one happened at Terrain here in Oak Park. After that I found myself really interested in expanding the project. Now it includes a literary component and I think the next step will be creating a soundtrack to be a part of this project. GRAFT was installed this past April through May at a space called Cuchifritos. It’s a non-profit exhibition space on the Lower East Side that’s a part of the Artists Alliance. The show was really important to me because I saw that space back in 2000 when I was at Skowhegan. I took a trip to New York and was able to visit that space. I was fascinated by the fact that it was in a market—a contemporary art gallery inside a market just blew my mind. So I waited to have the right project to apply. As part of that process, I had to include a curator to support me and I invited Albert Stabler who is the curator of the show White Feelings being presented at The Franklin during the month of August, 2016. He was living in Chicago for a long time and writing for different publications, including Newcity. He left to Urbana to pursue his PhD and even now we’ve continued collaborating.
GRAFT will also be on exhibit at Sector 2337, which is Caroline Picard’s project space here in Chicago on Milwaukee Avenue. Caroline has been very supportive of my work and the project, she produced the take-away publication for GRAFT. This project is very close to home. I am using the rejas, which are the Puerto Rican fences. In this work I am talking about their history, and symbolically transplanting them from Puerto Rico to American territory.
ML: I love that gesture. And it sounds like part of your practice, not just through The Franklin and your curatorial pursuits, but that your artistic practice is also collaborative and brings in people you are connected with.
ES: Yes, so that’s what happened. I learned how to become the artist that I want to be, by allowing things to happen. By being persistent about what I want to do, what I want to say and not letting it go. GRAFT was one of the first projects I said to myself, okay I want to continue to do this and I asked myself how am I going to expand this project? The parts that I have expanded feel very logical to me, and allow me to bring people that I know, that are important, and that are real in my life. One contributor to the literary component of GRAFT is my brother-in-law, Andy Sullivan, a political writer and journalist. He is a very intelligent man, and feel so lucky that he is a family member. While working on GRAFT, it occurred to me that we, Puerto Rico, have a difficult political situation right now. I told him about the project and he wrote a beautiful piece for it, very funny and super smart. So yes, I am very proud of this project and of all of the different parts and contributions.
ML: What else are you working on?
ES: Well, I just took a year off to complete PRESENT STANDARD, an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. It brought together 25 artists from Latino descent in Chicago. I co-curated this exhibition with Josue Pellot. We were invited by the Chicago Cultural Center through the Latino Art Now! Conference, which is a national event sponsored by the Smithsonian. I felt very fortunate to be invited to do this because it was such great timing. I’ve been in Chicago for more than fifteen years and I’ve seen some of my artist colleagues’ careers evolve to reach national visibility. It’s incredible that right now a few of them are in such an amazing place. I just felt really lucky to be in a position to be like, ‘You, you, and you, need to be a part of this!’ And they said, ‘Yes, absolutely!’ A complete dream come true for any curator. What a great opportunity for me as an artist to gather all of these people that I know and some that I didn’t know but that I found in trying to find a balance between the different type of practices. Just that group of people that I think about, this group of artists that have reached that type of visibility is very perfect timing for me.