Chicago, Aug. 2013: Edra Soto does not take summer to mean vacation. She has been hard at work for the past several months making large scale, site specific installations, as well as small, infinitely reproducible sculptures that fit in the palm of your hand. She’s a teacher, but most recently, she’s enjoyed being one of the inaugural students in a new professional development program run by The Hyde Park Art Center. She’s a gallerist whose exhibition space is located in her backyard, and she’s partnered with the City of Chicago on this year’s annual Chicago Artist Month to invite viewers out to take walks and listen to wind chimes in her East Garfield Park neighborhood this fall. She’s even turned her wedding anniversary into a performance piece, and will be celebrating it by serving cake to viewers in an effort to sweeten the sour memories of the original big day’s stresses and tensions. Soto was kind enough to take time to discuss several of her most recent art, educational and curatorial projects with me below. If you’re in town, her “Wedding Cake Performance” takes place August 24th at 1pm at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Edra Soto, Edra Soto and her husband, Dan Sullivan, on their wedding day; Courtesy of the artist.
Thea Liberty Nichols: You’re having a busy summer! Lets start with your "Wedding Cake Project" performance for the MCA's “Homebodies” show. What will it be like celebrating your 11th wedding anniversary in Alberto Aguilar's installation, serving cake to strangers? Tell us more about the project, how many times you've performed it, and what inspired the piece itself.
Edra Soto: The drama of this project lies in the story that motivates me to do the project, but the story is truly not visible. The whole point of making a massive celebratory piece is to symbolically reverse the effect caused by the original cake made by my mother. I asked her to make the cake a month ahead of our wedding and she accepted. The day before the wedding she was so overwhelmed that she didn’t think she was going to be able to make it. At that point I started to freak out about the fact that I was going to have no wedding cake! I asked her to show me how to do it and she told me that it was too hard and complicated to make.
She ended up making the cake. Everything went back to normal with the cake until I realized that she started to cut it and serve it before Dan and I had our picture taken cutting the cake. I had to put the pieces that she cut back into the cake. We staged the picture and carried on.
I’ve made the Wedding Cake Project possibly more than fifty times, but this is the second time I will make the installation using multiple cakes. Alberto and I collaborated on a unique ping pong table design. For this event, the cakes will be placed on top of the ping pong table and I will be serving them. For liability reasons (at the MCA), I will be collaborating with Weber’s Bakery to create eleven cakes, five tiers each, of pineapple upside down cake. I think it will be easier to make it happen with the bakery’s assistance.
TLN: How has the performance complicated that memory? Has it been a relief to revisit and remake it, or is it equally as stressful to continually go back to it and perform it so publicly!
ES: I believe that by placing a similar cake at a party, a gallery opening or any type of celebratory gathering, it will transform (symbolically) its original meaning. Like an irrational exorcism… It commemorates my wedding anniversary, and it’s always fun to see people’s reactions. I have also felt a certain empowerment by making the cake, but I don’t think it really dilutes the memories. You can’t really change the past.
Edra Soto, Wake up!, 2013, Courtesy of the artist and Medicine Cabinet, Chicago.
TLN: You had an amazing piece on view at the Medicine Cabinet earlier this summer featuring shell-shaped sculpture and fluorescent lighting. What's the significance of the singular coil shape? Are the shells symbolic of anything?
ES: As part of my practice, I look into making simple objects that are nicely crafted and are not as ambitious as my installation projects. They relieve the stress of making a whole production out of my work and keep me thinking. This is the part of my practice that focuses on simplifying previous ideas that deal with aspects of my culture and race. Seeking that simplification, I found what I consider my ideal sculpture. I call it Figure and they are easy to produce multiples. I use the same amount of air-dry clay for each piece, and start by making a coil and shaping it till it looks like a type of shell. Shells can be seen as Caribbean souvenirs but also as a protective case that houses an organism. I love that something so simple can end up possessing multiple meanings. I distinguish each production of Figures by identifying them with numbers that come from the configurations of the composition on which they are installed.
TLN: Do you feel that investigating imagery and racial stereotypes about your native Puerto Rico became more important to you as an artist once you moved to America, or has your work just naturally evolved into an exploration of those themes?
ES: I think living in America could make me feel nostalgic about the place I come from and what impacted my formation. My appreciation for Puerto Rico’s idiosyncratic style has become more interesting to me as I get older. I also feel more confident about addressing those issues mainly because I know what and how I want to communicate with my art. However, I don’t think of the differences as stereotypes, but merely as language differences (visual, sonorous, sensorial).
Edra Soto, Graft II, 2013, Installation View; Courtesy of the artist and Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.
TLN: After securing grant funding to participate in the Hyde Park Art Center's inaugural artist professional development program, The Center Program, you've spent five months in seminars with scholars, gallerists, artists and arts administrators. How has it affected your practice? What's the new body of work you've been producing in conjunction with the Program? Can you tell us more about the work you had up in "Front & Center," the second annual Center Program Show which just opened?
ES: One of the reasons I decided to join The Center Program was to immerse myself in a community of artists with similar interests. I took a writing class with artist and critic Zach Cahill, and at the time I was working full time as a high school teacher. It was a terrible challenge but I am glad I went through it and felt that it pointed me in the right direction. Not being a student for over ten years was keeping me out of a loop that as an artist I find valuable. It is important to me to understand where to look for resources and Zach’s class provided that.
The program also allowed me to lecture about my work and get feedback from professionals in the field. I had the pleasure of presenting my work to people like Theaster Gates, Susan Snodgrass and John Dempsey. I am at a point in my career where I don’t feel I need so much to be told what to do, however I have always been open to the opinions and suggestions of others. Maybe because I am an experienced artist there wasn’t any life-changing feedback, but being there kept my marbles rolling. I knew the program’s outcome was exhibiting at the HPAC and I’ve always wanted to do a significant project at the center. So the day came when my light bulb just went on and exploded!
I am so excited and pleased with my portion of the exhibition “Front & Center.” I decided to use the library space to install my “fencing” project. The title of my work is Graft II and is inspired by Puerto Rican iron fence designs. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to pull those fences out of their original place and re-contextualize them. The first experiment of this series was made at Sabina Ott’s home, Terrain Projects.
TLN: You’ve just told us about what it’s like being a student, but you’re also a teacher. Has working as an art teacher impacted your practice at all? I know you're starting a new teaching position this fall, going from teaching high school students in Chicago Public Schools to undergrads at an art school. What, if anything, do you think you've learned from your students?
ES: Teaching has always motivated aspects of my practice. From materials to approaches and techniques, teaching is like an infinite place that tracks your steps while you are walking it. Nothing gets lost on the way.
TLN: You also co-run (with your husband Dan Sullivan) The Franklin, an exhibition space in your backyard. Chicago Artist Month (CAM) is coming up in October; tell us how you and The Franklin will be involved in it and what programming we should look out for.
ES: As you might know, I am curating East Garfield Park (where I live) as part of this year’s CAM focus on neighborhoods. The Franklin will participate in the biggest art walk East Garfield Park has ever had. The EGPAW is organized by Nancy Vachon and Andrea Jablonski and will start at The Switching Station. It will lead you from the biggest landmarks of East Garfield Park to the smallest alternatives it has to offer.
The Franklin will be exhibiting new work by artist Matt Nichols specifically made for our gallery. He is a terrific sculptor who is currently living in Los Angeles.
I also organized an event called Wind-Chime, an exhibition at Garfield Park Conservatory that will exhibit wind-chime sculptures made by artists affiliated with the East Garfield Park community. Garfield Park Conservatory made thirty trees available for us to hang wind-chime sculptures. I look forward to seeing the artists’ contributions.
East Garfield Park will be featured during the last weekend of Chicago Artist Month, October 25, 26 and 27.
—Thea Liberty Nichols
ArtSlant would like to thank Edra Soto for her assistance in making this interview possible.