Chicago-based contemporary, conceptual, multidisciplinary artist Edra Soto grew up in a Catholic environment in Puerto Rico. From an early age, she learned that she should pick up after herself and not discard things carelessly when they are not used anymore. This life lesson turned into a creative pursuit that impacts communities.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, she didn’t think that she would one day venture out into the world. However, when Edra got the opportunity to live in Paris for a year, she packed her bags and dove into the adventure. After that, she moved to Chicago’s West Side where she has lived for almost twenty years.
The neighborhood is predominately populated by African Americans and Latino Americans who were (and are) often discriminated against, marginalized and forgotten. The lower-income surroundings have been neglected not only by other citizens but also by the authorities. Sometimes the garbage trucks just don’t make it that far out and trash is left on the side of the road.
Statistics have also shown that minorities are more prone to alcohol and other substance abuse. It comes as no surprise that Edra Soto found lots of liquor and alcohol bottles in East Garfield Park where she regularly walks her dogs. As the good Catholic girl she is, she started picking up these discarded empty bottles and carried them home.
What first seemed like a civic project turned into an art idea. Every day she cleaned the collected bottles and stripped them of their origins. Then Edra arranged the bottles in a unique way, either for lifestyle photographs, which she hoped to sell, or to work with other artists on projects involving the bottles.
And the bottles kept coming–or rather she kept collecting more and more–sometimes up to 15 in one day. They amounted to large numbers and she needed to have a solution and an outlet for these objects. Edra and her husband ran out of space at their house, which also doubled as an independent art space called The Franklin. The bottles needed a new home and purpose.
Hence, the idea to create workshops where people could decorate the bottles with seashells to either take them home or gift them to someone was born. While she didn’t see herself as a social engagement artist, she thought about how to best present the philosophy of living with art to her community and audience.
In 2017 Edra Soto was accepted into the Kohler Arts/Industry program. The various options and possibilities with the materials and techniques available at the Kohler foundry firmed up her plans for the bottles workshop.
The planning for the workshop idea was percolating. While she learned more about ceramics and the work that Kohler associates do in the factory, she thought about the glass bottles and what else was needed to set up an interactive and engaging space for visitors.
The decoration materials that Edra set her sights on were seashells. She had been collecting shells for many years. The fascination with them stemmed from her childhood and the collection nicely tied in with the material of the glass bottles. Glass is made of sand which connects them intimately with the shells. The material compatibility propelled the art project idea rapidly towards realization.
The residency work proved to be a wonderful opportunity to learn new techniques and complement other work Edra had already done. From the end of June to mid-August 2017, she worked in the foundry and the factory, acquired necessary knowledge and insights about ceramic work and created ceramic shells as decoration material and tabletop tiles with seashell molds.
She was particularly impressed with the process of pouring the slip into the molds and she compared it to baking cakes. The process also most likely brought back more childhood memories as her parents used to have a ceramic business. The whole experience was special to Edra and she marveled at the craftsmanship and commitment of the associates helping and supporting her with her project and vision.
The interactive tabletops served as workstations for the workshop and paired beautifully with the “grafts”, South American-inspired patterns called rejas, that are intricately applied to the custom-made cabinets where the found bottles were housed.
The bottles, the ceramic shells and tabletops, as well as the cabinets, came together to form a unique civic and social engagement space at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The interactive solo exhibition Open 24hours and the architectural intervention could not have been more perfect for the inauguration of this new section of the museum called The Commons.
In the workshop, museum visitors who had signed a contract with the artist, created clay seashells from the ceramic tabletop molds to beautify the bottles that they selected from the cabinets. According to their agreement, they would either gift the bottles to someone, take them home or donate them to future visitors.
The Commons also allowed Edra to bring in performance artists and musicians to populate the space even after the regular opening hours of the museum. Visitors could experience the art space as well as the effects of littering, democracy and segregation which are important aspects of Edra’s work. The notion of permanent public access and late-night shops created an atmosphere in the museum that was electrifying for both the organizers and visitors.
Due to the success, the exhibition moved on to the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel where it was held from October to November 2018. In May 2019 it was shown at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Source: some photos are courtesy of Edra Soto.