A portrait of the artist sitting in a wicker chair. She is wearing a pink shirt and smiling at the camera. In the background is a pink umbrella that matches the color of her shirt.
Edra Soto's solo exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center opens April 22. Credit: Steph Murray

“Prolific” understates the artworks artist Edra Soto has contributed to the cultural scene, radiating from Chicago and stretching to New York, California, Brazil, and beyond. Born in Puerto Rico, Soto treats her roots as a blueprint, building expansive bodies of work upon the boundless inspiration she finds within them. 

Over the course of the previous decade, Soto has been expanding upon one of her most recognizable projects, Graft. The series includes sculptures and reliefs of iron screens, or rejas, that are pervasive in the postwar architecture of Puerto Rico. By transplanting this form and placing it in the United States, Soto dissects her identity as a Puerto Rican artist, extracting a treasure chest of artworks as a result. In late April, Graft will be making another appearance in Chicago, in her highly anticipated solo exhibition, “Edra Soto: Destination/El Destino: a decade of Graft,” at the Hyde Park Art Center.

“‘Destination/El Destino’ brings together a decade of the Graft project,” Soto wrote over email. “The exhibition is anchored by an immersive sculpture composed of handmade motifs and fragments. Each fragment is a study or the remains of a larger iteration of Graft.”

The Graft series includes sculptures and reliefs of iron screens, or rejas, that are pervasive in the postwar architecture of Puerto Rico.
Credit: James Prinz

Regardless of location, each iteration of Graft offers a few consistent points of entry for the viewer within the rejas structure. There is often a bench embedded into the sculpture, offering viewers a place to rest, contemplate, and engage with one another. Additionally, there is often a publication element that includes collaborative essays written by people of many disciplines that reflect or relate to Graft conceptually. Finally, viewfinders set in the walls of the rejas sculpture depict nostalgic images relating to family and the Puerto Rico diaspora.

One particularly powerful aspect of Graft is that it is often implemented in public spaces, such as the Chicago Cultural Center, welcoming people of all demographics and backgrounds to come together and interact with the work. This offers an element of chance and can lead to unpredictable outcomes not available within the constraints of a gallery space. In previous installments, this has resulted in stunning, surprising collaborations between Soto and other creatives.

“It is incredibly rewarding when the artistic community reaches out either by proposing collaboration or as a spontaneous gesture,” Soto wrote. The Seldoms, a local dance company, reached out to the artist to propose collaborating on a performance at Screenhouse, an iteration of Graft that’s installed in Millennium Park. “The beautiful and inventive choreography they performed at Screenhouse responded to the Graft’s architectural elements and its sense of home or shelter.”

The local dance company The Seldoms collaborated with the artist on a performance in Millennium Park.
Credit: Andrew Glatt

The latest installment of Graft resides at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the exhibition “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria,” on view until April 23. This exhibition has received ample exposure that expands beyond in-person viewers due to the power of social media.

“One of my favorite kinds of collaboration happens when the public viewing the work tries to capture a photo or video of the archival documents in the viewfinders embedded in some of Graft sculptures,” Soto wrote. “These photos and videos are a reflection of an intimate encounter with my work. They are usually shared with me on my Instagram and come with anecdotal memories and kind messages. The work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of the exhibition ‘no existe un mundo poshuracán’ has received the most love, shares, and consideration. Many of these pictures taken by visitors become a part of the documentation of the work, and I get to give credit to those visitors for participating in the documentation process.”

The Chicago Botanic Gardens included Soto’s sculpture Casa Isla in their spring 2022 exhibition, “Flourish: The Garden at 50.” The size of a small home, Casa Isla was installed in the lagoon located toward the entrance of the gardens, floating lightly upon the face of the water, strong and unbothered by the ripples beneath it. 

“I felt that chance and imagination became an inevitable part of the making process,” Soto wrote. “The installation of this monumental sculpture didn’t allow for significant changes once it was placed into the lagoon.” 

Casa Isla was on view at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2022.
Courtesy the artist

The sculpture included nods to both the typography and architecture of Puerto Rico and resulted in a striking frame, accentuated by glimmering, lustrous swirls of turquoise and baby blue. Casa Isla also exemplifies another powerful identifier of Soto’s work: the consideration of the surrounding environment. Soto treats the setting of an artwork as a medium and makes it feel like a gesture just as important as the sculpture itself. The strict straight lines and heaviness of the sculpture are perfectly balanced by their sublime reflection in the water beneath it. Soto excels at adding value to and enhancing an environment, not taking away or distracting from an environment. Soto requested that a shrub, sourced by the garden, be integrated into the sculpture, which bloomed over the course of the installation. 

“After visiting the Botanic Garden so many times, I decided to paint the surface with colors that reminded me of the garden’s environment,” she wrote. “People kept referring to it as a mirage.”

Like a chameleon, Graft has continued to shapeshift to each environment that has housed it. An installment in Knoxville, Tennessee, at The University of Tennessee/GATOP Arboretum & Education Center, includes Soto’s distinguishable architectural intervention but with a warm mahogany and natural oak color palette. The sculpture nestles comfortably amongst the surrounding trees and sits proudly upon a sandy, rocky earth. In 2018 at the DePaul Art Museum, Soto built a site-specific installment of Graft that filled the facade of the museum, confronting viewers both outside and inside the museum looking through the sculpture, introducing itself as a visual lens. In 2022, Graft was included as a temporary installation at Anderson Hall at Rice University’s School of Architecture. The rejas structure was peppered along the windows, and viewers outside of the building were beckoned to engage with it. There were viewfinders dispersed among the forms, serving as visual portals to Puerto Rico, including images of buildings containing the rejas form in their natural environment, presenting the viewer with the opportunity to be in two places at once. 

A visitor takes a photo in one of the viewfinders embedded in a Graft sculpture.
Courtesy the artist

“The purpose of the Graft project is to inhabit a space and really cement itself as seamlessly as possible,” Soto writes. “My site-responsive approach considers not only the physical properties of a space or built environment but also its history, its public, and the light. I try to build my relationship to the space or the architecture to be addressed by visiting and absorbing the environment prior to the conceptual design process.”

The success and wide reception of Graft is a result of the sheer amount of work that has gone into this project. Every individual sculpture is unique, intricate, and detailed down to each square inch. This physical feat reveals Soto’s tenacity to keep pushing the limits and develop new ways of visual communication with each iteration. Soto’s unwavering inspiration propels Graft forward as she generates new facets to the project, and its longevity is a result of her perspective.

“I realized that my way of making and doing is as valid as it can be,” Soto writes. She doesn’t feel compelled to adhere to any market-based ideas of editions or conservation. “Many of these procedures are forms of controlling a production and have a common language that serves a market. Since making art for a market was never my motivation, after years of working on Graft, I realized that an archive can be as fluid as breathing. That in itself is a beautiful thing, and it feels so honest. Building narratives through images takes time, especially from a diasporic perspective.”

Graft’s many iterations have been supported by multiple grants and commissions, including the Artist Fellowship Award from Illinois Arts Council Agency in 2019 and again in 2022; Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant in 2020; Foundwork Artist Prize Winner Award in 2019; and awards from the MacArthur International Connections Fund in 2018 and 2019. Due to the continued support for the project, as well as Soto’s continued interest in developing it, it is safe to say Graft will continue to move on an upward trajectory.

“[In ten years] I hope to tell you that Graft doesn’t exist in concept but that its literary archive is integral to Puerto Rico’s education system. That the art that continues to be generated based on domestic architecture is not a mere exercise in aesthetics but that it is essential to Graft’s associations with racial justice,” Soto wrote.

Soto has spent the past decade using Graft to shine a permeating light on the Puerto Rican diaspora. Through this, communities in different corners of the world have gained a greater understanding of the displacement, celebration, grief, and strength that come with it. By continuing to develop her expertise in architecture, education, and community outreach, Graft is sure to have a lasting impact on the cultural landscape for years to come.

“Destination/El Destino: A Decade of Graft
Through 8/6: Mon-Thu 10 AM-7 PM, Fri 10 AM-4:30 PM, Sat 10 AM-4 PM, Sun 10 AM-1:30 PM, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, hydeparkart.org, free

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