A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Westward Expansion

by Anjulie Rao (MA 2014)

On the corner of West Franklin Boulevard and St. Louis, pushed back from the main drag of the East Garfield Park neighborhood sits the Franklin—a small art gallery run and lived in by SAIC alum Edra Soto (Post-Bac 1998, MFA 2000). The Franklin has become a staple for the neighborhood; the hand-built structure in Soto’s backyard has hosted numerous exhibitions, capitalizing on the area’s thriving local arts scene. For Soto, the upcoming Chicago Artists Month (CAM) will bring a massive extension to her backyard gallery, as her role as a curator for the Franklin has been broadened to curate all of CAM’s East Garfield Park events.

Soto’s work as an artist focuses on personal experience—her own practice has involved producing intimate, experiential performance and installation works specific to site and audience. She uses common actions and objects—such as inviting the public to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary by serving them pieces of pineapple upside-down cake. These small, performative actions tap into personal stories, inviting the audience into her memory. "[Projects] fulfill my need to connect with the audience. The drama of a project could lie on the concept. Then I proceed to translate that concept into an action, but I think the action itself should feel conventional and welcoming,” states Soto.

The Franklin operates much in the same way; a welcoming gazebo in East Garfield Park plays a crucial role in the neighborhood—and Chicago’s—artistic thrust. "Reaching out to Chicago resulted into The Franklin,” says Soto. "It has strengthened my connection to the arts community.” 

The connection to Chicago has led her to plan a range of activities for Chicago Artists Month in East Garfield Park. "This curatorial position allowed me to become familiar with the artists and administrators who run the organizations and landmarks of Garfield Park,” she says. "I've contributed by organizing exhibitions at the Center for Green Technology and Garfield Park Conservatory, and instigated other events in this neighborhood.” One such event entitled Wind Chime posed an open call to Chicago artists to propose wind chime sculptures to be hung around the park surrounding the conservatory gardens. 

Soto’s plan for CAM will also include activities that feature local venues and artists; she hopes her events will highlight the unprecedented success that Garfield Park artists have seen. "We focus on grassroots artists, not what's commonly featured during the Chicago Artists Month,” says Soto. She has planned evening events at Dr. Jay’s Place, an East Garfield Park bar that she contends, "has not been touched by time.” One of two featured artists from CAM, DJ Mr. Voice, has been spinning blues, dusties, and steppers for 15 years. 

Chicago Artists Month–East Garfield Park will also feature artist and musician Andrea Jablonski. A grassroots artist, Jablonski creates installations for public spaces, paints murals, and plays in the bands Girl Group and Rabid Rabbit. According to Soto, "She is someone to be noticed…she rallies people to make things happen. She is a doer.” 

Rallying people together is Soto’s area of expertise—through both her artmaking and curatorial projects. It is her ability to use these practices to move people toward each other and allowing experience to transform the viewer. "I always think of art as a receptacle of content that can help me channel emotions and ideas and transform them or manipulate them. It comes from a real place,” she says. October will be Soto’s biggest endeavor yet, allowing her to reach more people than ever before, bringing Chicago together through extraordinary events, projects, and enthusiasm.