By Elliot J. Reichert
This year, Newcity’s Art 50 focuses on the artists who make Chicago more beautiful and challenge the city to imagine a better version of itself every day. No artist better exemplifies that practice than Edra Soto, a longtime Chicagoan whose interdisciplinary, conceptual practice takes on tradition and cross-cultural pollination with playful, joyous forms and constant collaboration. We sat down at The Franklin, the home gallery she curates with her partner Dan Sullivan, to recap her amazing year and discuss her approach to art, teaching and staying sane in—and out—of the art world.
Earlier this year, we ran into each other at an opening and you told me that this has been a really good year for you. You seemed very optimistic. What was going on then?
I had just gotten a solo show at Cuchifritos Gallery in New York, which was a big deal. I had first seen that space back in 2001. It’s an amazing little gallery in the corner of an incredible market, the kind packed with all kinds of people and shops—fancy coffee shops, but other places that are pretty raw, with packed aisles. The gallery is next to a cheese store and they actually made a little tray of cheese for our opening. Over the years, I had applied twice to exhibit at the place but didn’t get it, so I waited until I had a project that really resonated with the space, which was in 2015.
You were also working on other things at that time, yes?
Sometime before then I finished teaching high school. I was teaching for Chicago Public Schools for about three years and for six years at the original campus of Noble Street charter school, right in front of Roots & Culture. I remember passing by that space and wondering what it was, not knowing that it was a gallery.
You were teaching art?
Yes, with Gallery 37 and After School Matters, and I loved it. For a lot of teaching artists and artists looking for jobs, that’s one of the first places that supports you.
Now, I’m teaching at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I really like it. I can be myself and I can talk to my students about art, about their careers and their futures. It’s a more adult conversation, and the students are excited and eager to be a part of it.
You must really enjoy mentoring students.
Very much so, I love it. I realized that teaching is my vocation when I started working at Gallery 37. Education allows me to enjoy art. When I was in high school, I was a mediocre student, and I didn’t see the point of school except for in art. I was always asked to do posters for theater events or volleyball matches. In my senior year of high school, I started an art club and I won a trophy for it. I kept it in my closet for a long time because I was embarrassed about it, but finally, I made it into an artwork.
Can you talk more about your upbringing? Were either of your parents artists?
My father always made canvases and stretchers for me, which he built himself. He worked for an insurance company and he was in the Air National Guard, but he was always very artistic in a crafty kind of way and my mother was too. My father did glasswork and woodwork; he did our kitchen cabinets. Growing up in Puerto Rico, we were a middle-class family. There was always a television around and I watched a lot of it growing up. A lot of my cultural education and my English came from watching TV.
Pop culture comes up a lot in your work, too, in, for instance, your show at Harold Washington College, which included dresses embroidered with doubled images of celebrities.
Yes, I call them lifelines, because those people, those celebrities, shaped something in me.
As role models?
As turning points in my life. In that show, there was a portrait of Diane Lane from the movie “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.” I remember watching this movie at two in the morning in Puerto Rico. It came on the television and I thought “What is this?” At the time, I had no cultural connection at all to what I was looking at and I was fascinated by it. This group of girls, very young and rebellious, run away from home to start a punk band. I was young and in Puerto Rico and I had no idea what I was looking at, and I was obsessed with it for years. Much later, I realized it was a cult American movie and it was such satisfaction to me.
To discover a part of yourself?
Yes, and to know that I was interested in something so weird, something that had nothing to do with me.
From your experience growing up in Puerto Rico was your perception of mainland United States mediated mostly by popular culture?
I think so. Seeing things on TV made me curious about the outside world. I was truly fascinated with it, and I was not as fascinated with my own culture, because it was all around me. To this day, living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, there are Puerto Rican flags all around and I don’t have flags. I know who I am, I grew up there.
When did you come to Chicago?
I moved here in my late twenties. I lived in Paris for one year before I came to Chicago. I won a fellowship to work there and that was my first experience outside of Puerto Rico. It was amazing, but a bit surreal. I was a commercial success in a very short time. A gallery in Puerto Rico, a very successful one, gave me a solo show after one of my art history professors at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico, where I received my bachelors, invited me to show my paintings at her café in old San Juan. The show sold out. That was my first experience being an artist and I didn’t really understand anything about the art world.
I was very shy, and I decided to do art because art gave me a position in the world that no one could touch. I started making art because it was the only place where I could be myself.
Considering your art education, does it have any influence on why you enjoy teaching?
When I understood the connection between education and art and the value of it to my art, I began to realize why teaching is so special. I see the value of art and how significant that can be for a young person.
In several of the projects you’ve been doing over the years, you’ve been working with a lot of other artists. You’re constantly bringing other people into the conversation, and that seems related to the desire to mentor and to teach.
Perhaps, in part. In another way, I’m thinking about who this art is for—I put great value in the visual aspects of my work and the impact it has and the connection people have with it. But I’m also concerned about the real social connection, and some aspect of my work has a social practice element to it. I want my work to live in perfect balance between how it looks and how it informs. Bringing people together legitimizes the purpose of it all, which is to create real connections with others.
So, if I’m building a rejas with metallic tape, making a representation of this design, I will bring others in and ask them to help. I did this recently at DfbrL8r gallery as a performance. I also did something similar at my show at Harold Washington College. I gathered a group of students and instructed them on how to install my exhibition. I want to demystify the artistic process, the process of making an exhibition, so I put it all out there.
There are so many precedents for that work—Sol LeWitt, in particular, but he is so bureaucratic, whereas you seem to be much more focused on a community.
It’s more democratic than bureaucratic.
How do you make work democratically while still preserving the style of your work?
There’s always a plan. I’m a director; that’s a part of being a conceptual artist.
You consider yourself a conceptual artist?
Very much so. I don’t have a lot of products in my studio. I have all kinds of documentation, but I haven’t made things in a long time. And it’s not because I don’t want to—I love painting, but I find it less appealing. I cannot make myself do things that I don’t believe in. My whole idea of making art is to find a place where I have an independent voice with complete integrity. Perhaps that’s why I’m not affiliated with a commercial gallery.
So the performance of directing people to install your shows is similar to teaching?
A little bit, yes.
With regard to the commercial galleries, they can help you find opportunities, no?
At this point, I don’t need commercial galleries to help me find opportunities. I have been able to make them for myself. The only thing that would help would be support to transport work or to travel me, but can they really do that? So many galleries are struggling just to stay open.
And without a gallery, you’re doing a lot of work and holding it down, for instance, “Present Standard,” the group show you curated with Josué Pellot at the Chicago Cultural Center earlier this year. How was that experience?
That was the best experience of my life and it came at the perfect time. Maria Gaspar, Alberto Aguilar, Harold Mendez, Juan Angel Chávez, Dianna Frid, Candida Alvarez and others—these are people that are very important to me. They have been my friends for a long time and in the last two years they have accomplished things that any artist would want to accomplish. But they happened to be my friends, and they happened to be Latino artists. That was the goal of “Present Standard,” to show that work and show those artists. Historically, it was the perfect time to showcase all these artists, all these forces, at the same time. For all of the artists in the show, I had full access and I knew their work deeply. As soon as the Cultural Center told Josué and I what they wanted, I knew it was perfect.
One thing that I try to remember all the time, every day, is to remember why I do this. It’s not for recognition, it’s because it’s a life philosophy, it’s a reason to continue. It sounds dramatic, but everyone needs a reason to continue this crazy life that doesn’t make sense.
This returns to what you were saying at the beginning of this conversation about art being a space of your own.
Artists hold on tight to that spot. It keeps them sane.
There are a lot of things that could make artists insane—how to fund a project, whether or not to say “yes” to an invitation if the energy is low….
Fortunately, there’s been very little that I’ve had to say no to in these last couple of years. Sometimes I have to say no to a campus visit. I’m not a snob and I’ll usually say yes unless it’s not at all compatible with my practice. There are different artistic communities and I am clear about which I can navigate. I want to feel comfortable.
It seems to me that there are a lot of artistic communities in Chicago and so many pockets of activity. There is cross-pollination, but there are distinct communities. How do you navigate those spaces and bridge them while still holding on to your community?
Often, I try to reach out to communities I’ve been involved with outside of Chicago. For instance, I got invited to do a show in New Orleans, and I invited Maria Gaspar and Damon Locks. At the time, I didn’t know anyone in New Orleans. I found alternative spaces on Facebook and I found artists. After that exhibition, Damon got a music residency down there, and he’s been back twice, which is pretty awesome.
This seems to be a pattern with you—you have students help assemble your work, “Present Standard” was a huge gathering of Latino artists, you bring your friends who are artists to collaborate on a show in New Orleans. Do you always prefer to share your opportunities?
I don’t feel that selfish about it. I get more out of being a part of a strong community of artists who inspire me and propel me. There is so much loneliness in the act of creating something. A practice that only focuses on yourself does not feel genuine to me.
There’s a tension in that. Your practice, as you said at the beginning, is a place for you to be yourself, but that’s inherently a state of loneliness.
There is integrity in a studio practice, but there is also integrity in sharing experiences. At this point, I can decide whether I want to collaborate or work on my own.
You have a lot coming up this fall. Can you talk about it?
I’m very excited to be curating the SAIC MFA exhibition at the EXPO booth. It’s small, but it’s amazing. I was honored that they chose me. I spent a lot of time in the 2016 MFA exhibition looking for artists. I only wanted to curate the most recent graduates, who would benefit most from being shown.
That same week, you’re doing The Annual exhibition at the Chicago Artists Coalition?
Yes, it’s all coming together. It’s been amazing to work with Teresa Silva and Mary DeYoe and team up with Dock 6 Collective to complement the artists’ contributions. I was also invited to do a commission at the Arts Club in the garden outside and a show at Sector 2337 in the winter. That’s a magnificent space, and Caroline Picard and Albert Stabler have been so supportive.
I’m so excited about art, and especially when I see the work of students I feel inspired to continue my work, because I never lack in excitement about it. It’s like being in love for a very, very long time. I just believe—I cannot explain it, it’s abstract. Perhaps it’s because I associate art with language, language that has no letters, no way to be fully understood. It’s that intrigue that keeps me captivated.