1932-2017: Austin artist and teacher Ishmael Soto dies

Ishmael Soto, longtime Austin ceramicist and teacher, died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 84.

“Ishmael’s passing is a loss for us all in the community,” said Sylvia Orozco, director of Mexic-Arte Museum. “He was a great human being, teacher and artist. Ishmael was one of the first, if not the first Mexican-American Austinite to become a professional visual artist.”

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Artist and teacher Ishmael Soto died Feb. 27 at age 84. Contributed by Tahila Mintz

Soto won many prizes and was exhibited frequently in group and solo shows.

A native Austinite, Soto earned his first degree from the University of Texas and his second from the famed Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. His 57th Annual Potters Show and Sale took place in December 2016. He taught ceramics at UT for seven years — one of the first Hispanics to teach in the art department — then at St. Edward’s University and Austin Community College for a total of more than 30 years..

“He was a modest, generous mentor and major inspiration to many artists,” said his widow, Cynthia Leigh. “He taught thousands of students over his lifetime. Many of his students decided to become artists from his encouragement and support. He did not try to mold his students to imitate his work; he encouraged them to follow their own artistic path and draw on their own talents”

The son of Benjamin Enriquez Soto, a factory worker and truck driver, and Herlinda Herrera Soto, a homemaker, the artist had three siblings, Sara Soto Zajicek, Benjamin Soto and Martha Soto Miller. All attended UT and all are deceased.

“They were pillars of the Mexican-American community in East Austin,” Leigh said of his family. “They helped establish Emmanuel United Methodist Church. His great-great-great-grandfather was noted surveyor, scout and Methodist preacher Jose Policarpo Rodriguez of Bandera, who built a small chapel known as ‘Polly’s Chapel’ along Privilege Creek that is still used and recognized as a Texas Historic Landmark.”

Soto attended Palm Elementary School and Austin High School, where he ran track. in 1944, he attended the Texas School of Fine Arts when it was located on 19th Street. He was the only Hispanic student enrolled at the time.

He married Helen Lopez in 1950. In 1953, Soto was drafted into the Army and sent to Austria, where he was assigned to paint signs among other duties. In 1973, the couple was divorced. He later married Finn Alban from Fredericksburg. They lived off the land in the country as he continued to make and sell pottery. He married Leigh in 1990.

He leaves behind four children — Martha Soto (jeweler), Ishmael H. Soto, Jr. (clay artist), Pablo Roberto Policarpo Soto (glassblower) and Cynthia Leigh Soto — as well as five grandchildren.

Soto’s ashes will be spread by his family on the land where he resided near Lexington. A celebration of his life is expected in the spring.

“He was our native son,” Orozco said. “The colors of the earth and sky, the intertwining trees and shrubs of the woods — images embedded in his mind from his childhood and life in the country — influenced his  work as he transformed red, tan and yellow earth into shapes of beauty.  Ishmael has passed but he leaves us these gifts of art and the knowledge he shared with hundreds of students. In this way, the spirit of Ishmael Soto will live on.”


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