Michelle Ortiz in front of mural “El Yunque” in North Philadelphia. (Photo/ Brae Howard)

[VIDEO] A muralist connects communities with paint

According to Michelle Ortiz, it was a specific life event which inspired her to become a muralist for her community. She was a teenager in southern Philadelphia and there was a huge mural being made. She was so amazed at the scale of the work, she asked how she could be involved. Instead of her offer being welcomed, Ortiz says she was ignored and pushed away.

“I was about 17, and she was like ‘I don’t have time for you’…so I told my mom, ‘I’m going to make a mural that size,’” says Ortiz, the now a 33-year-old artist of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent. “I know what it’s like to be treated unjustly, and I took charge to use my talent against the ignorance happening…”

She says this is the reason why she never turns anyone away, and also one of the reasons she’s a community educator.

“I refer [other artists] to different resources, and I become a connector for them to develop their craft as an artist,” says Ortiz who received her BA via a scholarship to Moore College of Art and Design.

As Ortiz was the first to graduate college in her family, as well as the first artist, getting a scholarship was when she said she truly saw the possibility of being an artist as a career.

“Even though I received my training at a fine arts college, I felt that there was another way I could create artwork,” says Ortiz who says she came from a family that didn’t go to museums every Sunday. “Arts and culture were lived and breathed by our culture and traditions. Songs my father would sing, paper flowers my grandmother would make. I was raised in these two worlds.”

Ortiz says she began to question who the artwork in museums is accessible to. She wasn’t convinced this was the best way to communicate with her people.

“Community artwork opens the door for people to come together,” she says she realized after working with her own community, as well as internationally.

This past April, Ortiz worked with a community in Buenos Aires at a center for people with mental issues for three weeks, where they learn manual skills, but are not separated from their community. It was over 200 ft. long and 40 ft. high.

“Seeing the change among the patients and therapists…it was such a dynamic way to get everyone working together,” says Ortiz who has also been to Fiji, Mexico and Spain creating murals in various communities. “The mural become the glue that puts everything together.”

Inspired by a project in 2009, when she traveled to the violence-stricken Juarez, Mexico (with the help of the U.S. Embassy) to teach the community mural techniques and found herself profoundly moved by how it strengthened such a vulnerable community, Ortiz fundraised for a year and a half to do a similar mural in Philadelphia called, “Aqui y Alla.”

“It’s a transnational project – work being done by youth, Mexican-American youth that crossed the border, but the decision was made by their parents,” says Ortiz. “It discusses the impact of immigration on young people’s lives…When they are 10 or 11, another person makes a decision for them to leave…How can we create a space where they can not be judged?”

She started this project in July, and she also incorporated a curriculum for the youth where they were required to complete journal entries. In August, she also brought two artists from Juarez and two from Chihuahua to collaborate in Philadelphia.

“It’s about continuing these relationships and empowering these artists in their communities,” says Ortiz. “The artists then went back to their cities and did workshops.”

Ortiz says she is now finalizing the documentary on this project, which should be completed the second or third week of November. She says just last week things have finally calmed down for her, but when she’s working on a project, it’s non-stop.

“I stay up till 3 or 4am just responding to e-mails, creating press releases, sending thank you notes – I’m my own publicist,” says Ortiz. “I’m trying to raise funds for these projects. It’s exhausting, but I love the work that I do. It’s not easy, but that becomes my drive.

Also, as the program manager at the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation for the past five years, Ortiz sets up free workshops for artists that work in communities.

“Education is important to me, because I can’t do it alone,” she says. “To be able to teach other artists to do this work continues this movement to create social change.”

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