GARFIELD PARK — Aside from a small neon sign on the front window, it's hard to tell Edra Soto's house from any other on Franklin Boulevard. But the moment Soto and her two dogs greet visitors at the door, they've unmistakably stepped into a totally immersive art gallery.
Soto, a lifelong visual artist originally from Puerto Rico, teamed up with her husband in 2012 to exhibit art out of their Garfield Park home. Calling the space The Franklin, the couple have invited dozens of artists to show paintings, photos, sculptures, live performances and more on a rotating basis.
"At that point in my career [in 2012] I realized that there's this huge population of artists in Chicago, and not all of us are compatible with bigger commercial exhibit spaces" said Soto, who earned a master of fine arts degree from the Art Institute after moving to Chicago in 1998. "But that doesn't mean they're not valid, that doesn't mean they shouldn't be discovered."
Soto shows "Hardcore Architecture," the installation on display at The Franklin through August. [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]
The gallery was born out of an installation Soto created called "Living by Example," for which Soto's husband, a woodworker, built an open wood shed as a public showcase for her art. Since then, the shed has stayed in her backyard, and it's housed new installations every month or so, all year round.
Showcasing art that can stand up to Chicago's weather is no easy feat. Last week Marc Fischer, whose installation "Hardcore Architecture" is now displaying at the Franklin, said he had to call Soto to make sure the previous week's "sideways rain" didn't blow his work into the next neighborhood.
But an outdoor gallery can offer its own advantages, even in the middle of the winter.
Every February since The Franklin opened, its owners have invited Chicago artist Chris Smith to lead an "art burning" event, a backyard bonfire where artists of all stripes can offer their work up as "sacrifices" to the flames.
Every February, Soto invites Chicago artist Chris Smith to lead an "art burning" at The Franklin. [Facebook/The Franklin]
"It's actually a really fun project, and it brings artists together on this fundamental level to experience something with their peers," said Smith, who has showcased a couple other installations at The Franklin. "It's an opportunity to get us out of these 'light cube' gallery spaces and do this foundational 'back to nature' kind of exercise, where we're all staring into a fire together."
Building that sense of community, Smith said, is what sets The Franklin apart from other artist-run galleries in the city.
"What's so cool about what Edra and Dan [Sullivan, her husband] have done is that they've managed to bring in this really diverse group that transcends all the little micro-communities in the art world," Smith said. "Everyone's got a different background and education level, and [Soto and Sullivan] are just so good at tapping into all of them and making everyone feel welcome."
And that doesn't end with just artists and art-enthusiasts. At the showcase of every new installation, Soto said she tries to bring in people who live around her in East Garfield Park.
"Whenever I'm out walking my dogs, I'll talk to a lot of my neighbors and tell them about the next exhibition, and usually at least a couple will show up," said Soto, who's lived in her home for nine years. "Some of them are musicians, and we'll invite them to do performances ... anything that helps keep us connected to the community here, because I do love it here."
The artists Soto has showcased range from Garfield Park to the wider art world, from a few blocks away to Puerto Rico and Europe. Her outreach, Fischer said, has built a bridge between the streets of Chicago's West Side and polished floors of the Art Institute.
"A lot of times in these kinds of artist-run domestic spaces, they'll deliberately want isolation, like a place to hide away, but that's not the sense you get at The Franklin," Fischer said. Soto and Sullivan "have managed to take a limited amount of space and modest means, and put it out there for a ton of people to be a part of."
The Franklin, 3522 W. Franklin Blvd., holds an open house from 2-5 p.m. every Saturday. Outside of that, visitors are encouraged to arrive by appointment.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: