If you peruse Sofia Maldonado’s Instagram feed, you will find images full of color, joy, and hope. If you happen to ever meet Sofia in person, you will find her to be as vibrant as her work, and strong even in the face of obstacles. As an artist who tackles everything from gallery-ready paintings and site-specific murals to works that engulf entire abandoned spaces, she’s never one to shy away from a challenge.
Sharing time between New York and her native San Juan, Sofia focuses on both her own artistic practice and that of others through cultural exchange. In an effort to connect international artists with Puerto Rican culture, she founded HIELO, an artist residency program. Taking a name inspired by Doña Fela, San Juan’s first woman mayor, and involving her bringing snow to the children of Puerto Rico, HIELO creates a cross-cultural conversation through art and local experience.
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria dealt a massive blow to Puerto Rico, and with everyday life still drastically impacted, Sofia continues to face new challenges with determination, passion and grace. Recalling the story of Doña Fela’s planeloads of snow and her reply to how long it would last in the heat, “Long enough to throw a ball of snow and a lot longer to play in the pool of water,” you can’t help but think of the kind of impact Sofia’s work, artistically and socially, may have. Long enough to get your attention, and a lot longer to keep you thinking and wanting to make a difference.
For our readers who aren't familiar with you or your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your practice?
I was born in Puerto Rico, from a Cuban mother. I’ve been painting murals since my teenage days. It started as part of my love for hip-hop and graffiti, but it has evolved with time to a more abstract concept that uses color as a signifier of decay.
My studio work is nurtured by colorful and bold public art projects. The site-specific paintings focus on neglected buildings and abandoned spaces. To create the massive compositions, I use a sprayer machine, which allows me to imprint gigantic marks on the surfaces. In 2015, I created Kalaña, a site-specific project in an old tobacco factory where the walls, ceiling and floor were painted and, in this way, converted the abandoned space into an ephemeral creative hub for community workshops and musical performances. Photo documentation of this project was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, as part of the “Debfair” by Occupy Museums (2017).
I enjoy creating D.I.Y public art projects, such as Kalaña, that will eventually influence my studio practice, future murals, and the next generation of artists.
Much of your work is site-specific, and every public art setting is different. With that in mind, do you have an idea solidified before you see each site, or do you find yourself inspired once you visit a space? Or both?
Each space has its own reality and nature. I usually ask myself, what does this space provide or demand?
Prior to my move in 2015, my country had been experiencing an economic crisis, and it’s very evident in the amount of abandoned buildings around the island. On that note, I started using color as a signifier of abandonment to create awareness, rather than a beautifying agent, which usually makes the actual problem invisible and gentrifies communities.
How would you compare the experience of creating work meant to be indoors to creating work that lives out in the open? Do you think specifically about who the audience might be and how the elements may change around the work or actually change the work itself over time?
There’s a different freedom in each process. Since I paint with an airless-sprayer machine, the outdoor projects allow me to spill paint, interact with nature, and experience color in space without restriction. Some of the outdoor works have that old graffiti vibe, borderline illegal, no permits asked.
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The indoor projects might tend to be more subtle and under-responsive to design perspective. It’s fun to work with both dualities, even though one has a more anarchic process than the other. My main interest is in the human interaction with each piece. Can people walk around, on top or under the piece? How will this change their perception of reality or their daily routines?
How did the idea for your artist residency program, HIELO, come about?
HIELO a.i.r was my old studio space. The space [is] an old storefront mini-market. It’s magical. While in Berlin with Nicole Rodriguez Woods, co-founder of HIELO and a good old friend, we were brainstorming about the importance of cultural exchange and how can we feature local and international artists. So, HIELO was founded as our answer to create culture, give back to our country, and promote a much-needed contemporary dialog in Puerto Rico.
Do you find your own experience as an artist influential in your role as administrator for the program?
Definitely, it influences the role. I assist artists to develop their projects and have a rounded experience of Puerto Rico. The residency is very flexible. There’s no structure, but we encourage artists to create new work and design an exhibition or open studio to share with the community.
You have offered a glimpse into post-Hurricane Maria life on your Instagram feed. Beyond the immediate human impact of the crisis, do you feel it has or will affect your artistic practice? Has it affected HIELO?
Maria affected every artist and creative space on the island. It was a restart for us at HIELO, since we had to cancel various projects lined up for 2017.
Our last artist in residence, James Schenck, redesigned his initial proposal into a project that made reference to the post-hurricane reality. He collaborated on a piece with Habitat for Humanity that was eventually donated and will become part of the reconstruction of a house.
As for my practice, the hurricane gave me a new perspective on the global change, the local scene, and the importance of education. I am working in a new series of watercolors that document my perspective of the disaster and post-Maria landscape.
For those watching footage and reading about Puerto Rico from afar, what do you want them to know about what life is for the average person on the island? What kind of help do you think is most effective?
Puerto Rico has been working hard to get back to reality. The metropolitan area is running semi-normal, but there are still people living in very harsh conditions. It’s evident we are a third world country. As for the arts, we need much more aid and support to keep Puerto Rico’s cultural/creative agenda running. Any help or initiatives are welcome! One good and legit source to help the local artists is the Prima Fund.
Your friends and followers know you like to get down. What song do you put on when you have a big task in front of you?
Yeah! I love dancing and twerking…haha! It’s part of a project/platform I’ve been developing since summer 2017: @femtrap.
Rather than a specific song, I will say, a movement – anything under female trap – works for me! I am a big fan of the amount of female trap singers producing great music nowadays, such as Muevelo Reina, Bad Gyal, La Zowi, Ms Nina, La Favi, Tomasa del Real, Princess Nokia, Abra, Audrinix and many others.