Interview with Edra Soto: Taking Chances

Documentation
Documentation. Courtesy of the artist.

Edra Soto, a Chicago artist born in Puerto Rico, received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has shown extensively in the Chicago area, nationally, and internationally. She is a mixed-media, installation, and performance artist, as well as a teacher and curator.

ArtStyle: Before coming to Chicago, where did you study?

Edra Soto (ES): Right after high school, I attended the Escuela de Artes Plasticas de Puerto Rico.

ArtStyle: Who was your main influence in becoming a professional artist?

ES: No one in particular. I was never a great communicator, and I always felt art was a good way for me to communicate. It gave me a type of freedom I didn't find anywhere else.

ArtStyle: Why did you choose to study in Chicago and make Chicago your base for your studio practice?

ES: To be honest, I was not well informed about where to go. The Art Institute had the reputation as the best art college, and I wanted to go to the best one. It was an experience that led me to great opportunities and gave me a good education.

Documentation Image
Documentation Image. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: After completing your MFA degree, you were rewarded a fellowship to study at the esteemed Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. What was the artistic environment there like?

ES: It was almost surreal. The first days there felt like I was in the land of all things forbidden. Everyone was so attractive in a raw/animalistic kind of way. I think it was a natural high to be there with such an outstanding group of artists. The highlights of that residency were seeing Fred Tomaselli and his family fly-fishing and watching Janine Antoni making a wild woman-at-birth costume.

ArtStyle: What was your work like that summer?

ES: I felt adventurous and did a few pieces that were site-specific and interactive. I also did a performance and collaborated with a few artists.

I spent most of the time taking pictures of everything and everyone. When I came back I exhibited most of my work at what used to be Dogmatic Gallery in Pilsen.

ArtStyle: Your work seems to be obsessed with the media as your influence. Could you tell me when and how this developed?

ES: I grew up in Puerto Rico, where the culture is predominantly mainstream. I absorbed a lot of that and through the years learned what that meant. I use it most of the time as a vehicle to comment. I don't consider my work preachy or manipulative (at least I hope it isn't). I like the idea of using and recycling ideas. I tend to be ambiguous, and sometimes comical and lightweight. I like taking chances and doing difficult things that challenge people’s perception. I guess I'm all over the map, as I think artists should be.

Ornamentos
Ornamentos. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: The At the Edge program, a part of UIC’s gallery scheduling, gave you a show in which you entitled Documentation 2004: A Year in Review Ornamentos. In this show you made beautiful contour line drawings but they were not typical pencil on paper drawings; they were incised on metal and the images came from newspapers you read for a year. Why did you choose this type of material to draw on and does it have a cultural significance? Also, what newspapers did you choose to draw your images from? Is there any reason why you used different metals?

ES: In my job as a high school art teacher, I started getting very interested in folkloric Mexican art. I found fantastic images of the milagros (traditionally made to pay tribute to the dead) and eventually connected this concept to the fact that, as soon as you read a newspaper, all the news that you read is a thing of the past, therefore, “dead.”

I chose the Chicago Sun Times because for some strange reason it was being delivered to where I used to live. I noticed that the entertainment news tends to be published in a greater scale than the rest of the news.

I created a color code: gold for entertainment news, silver for world news and copper for local news.

ArtStyle: You also have some experience as a curator. How does your role as a curator relate to your art making and the artists you select?

ES: My experience as a curator is limited. I can make connections among artists and like some of the social aspects of it, but I don't care to make it a focus.

Familiar Portrait
Familiar Portrait. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: You also had a solo show Familiar Portraits at Polvo Art Studios . What do you mean by “familiar”?

ES: Familiar in this particular context meant ordinary. I was using portraits of babies and animals and trying to create an installation that refers to an absurd kind of love in emotion and amount. I used the purr of my cat as a medium for spreading affection to the visitors of the space. I also provided a small, intimate space to force people to give each other a chance to be inside that space and explore it more intimately.

ArtStyle: As an artist you wear many hats. Could you elaborate on some performance art you have participated in?

ES: I use performance to comment on things that are unresolved or themes that are huge and difficult to talk about like the impossibility of moving forward in life (spiritually, mentally and physically). Sometimes I organize it like an event and have others do my performance. Performance is so specific to me. I need a good reason to go through that process — it's a big production. Even if I do not participate physically, I end up exhausted in every aspect.

ArtStyle: When exhibiting abroad, what is the theme of your work and where have you shown?

ES: I don't adjust the theme according to the place I show. I usually get invited to show at cultural institutions, museums, alternative venues and universities. In the last 5 years I've been invited to participate in curatorial projects. My work has traveled all over: Australia, Russia, Spain, Milwaukee, Indiana and St. Louis, Texas, Paris, Puerto Rico, and, of course, Chicago. You can visit my work at edrasoto.blogspot.com .

Edra Soto can be contacted at edrasoto@hotmail.com.

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