Ishmael was a gifted artist whose sculptures and vessels in clay, metal, and wood were widely exhibited, winning numerous awards throughout his lifetime. In 2007 at the age of 75, he hosted a 50th Anniversary Retrospective Exhibition, “Vessels and Inspirations: Ceramic and Sculptural Work of Ishmael Soto,” at the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin. In 2011 Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) presented an Exhibition of Mayan-Inspired Copper and Clay Sculptures and Drawings that paid tribute to his cultural heritage and his fascination with Mayan art. Ishmael held 57 Annual Studio Show and Sale Exhibitions at the various studios he built over his lifetime, from East 3rd Street and Westlake in Austin, to his final studio in Blue near Lexington, Texas.
Named to the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in 2007, Ishmael was also honored that year by a City of Austin Proclamation designating January 19, 2007 as “Ishmael Soto Day for his Contribution to Education and the Arts.” In 2016 he received an award from Austin Community College in recognition of his 30 years of teaching and was also honored by inclusion on the MACC’s “Wall of Excellence of Latino Artists.”
Ishmael was a master teacher, admired and loved by his students for his teaching style that encouraged creativity and exploration of each student’s own talents. Years after studying with Ishmael, students would recall him as someone who changed their lives, sometimes influencing their career paths towards a life in the arts. Stan Irvin, an early student of Ishmael’s and Professor Emeritus of the Ceramics Department at St. Edward’s University, stated, “He was an artistic genius who followed his own path, with allegiance to no one. Always a step ahead with new innovations and deep felt expression that came so naturally to him. He saw artistic possibility everywhere and acted on it. I feel very fortunate to have been his student and to this day consider Ishmael my mentor and model for how to live a creative life.”
Ishmael was very proud of his heritage on both sides of his family. His great-great grandfather was noted surveyor, scout, and Methodist preacher Jose Policarpo Rodriguez of Bandera, Texas, who built a small chapel known as “Polly’s Chapel” along Privilege Creek, Texas that is still in use and recognized as a Texas Historical Landmark. The youngest son of Benjamin Enriquez Soto and Herlinda Herrera Soto, Ishmael attended Palm Elementary School and Austin High School, where he ran track. During those high school years, he particularly enjoyed canoe trips down the Colorado River with his Sea Scout buddies who remained close friends throughout his life. He took art classes at the Texas School of Fine Arts in Austin, the only Latino student enrolled at that time. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin in 1958 and earned a Master of Fine Arts with a major in ceramics and a minor in metal smithing from the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1960. Returning to Texas, he set up a studio on East 3rd Street and began to sell his pottery to the public. He was an instructor in pottery at the San Antonio Art Institute from 1964 to 1968, assistant professor of art at the University of Texas at Austin from 1968 to 1974, and art professor at Austin Community College from 1986 to 2016. He also taught classes at Laguna Gloria Art Museum and at St. Edwards University as well as giving workshops at various crafts institutes and schools around the United States, including Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee.
Ishmael lived life to the fullest, loving his family and friends deeply and admiring beauty wherever he found it in this world. He was generous to a fault, with a warm and endearing personality that drew people to him. Easy to talk to, he made a lasting impression on many people. He was truly one of a kind.
Ishmael passed on his creative talents to his children, three of whom are professional artists working with clay, glass, and jewelry. His survivors include his wife, Cynthia F. Leigh; his former wives, Helen Lopez Soto and Susan Lewis “Finn” Alban; his children, Martha Jean Soto, Ishmael H. “Bud” Soto, Jr. and partner Robin Doerr,, Pablo Roberto Policarpo Soto and wife Cristina Cordova, and Cynthia Leigh Soto; his grandchildren, Ishmael H. Soto III, Anika Nicolle Cumley, Claire Alena Davis, Paloma Cordova Soto and Eva Susana Soto; nieces and nephews and thousands of friends and former students. He was especially indebted to Julie Isaacson of Austin Community College, whose loving support made it possible for him to extend his teaching career at ACC. He would want all his friends to know how much he appreciated their attention and affection over many years, enriching his life beyond measure.
Ishmael’s ashes were spread by his family on the land where he resided for the last decades of his life, in Blue, Texas. Contributions may be made in his memory to Mexic-Arte Museum of Austin or to the charity of your choice.