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Eyes on the big picture

For Mural Arts Month, the story of Michelle Ortiz, a rare Latina muralist who paints diversity and social justice.

Artist Michelle Ortiz in front of a mural she created at 1515 S. Sixth St. that focuses on Hispanic heritage and immigration. "I always knew that I needed to stand up if someone was unjust and speak out and not be afraid." (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Artist Michelle Ortiz in front of a mural she created at 1515 S. Sixth St. that focuses on Hispanic heritage and immigration. "I always knew that I needed to stand up if someone was unjust and speak out and not be afraid." (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)Read more

It was an unfortunate incident, but one that propelled artist Michelle Ortiz into a career as a muralist dedicated to social change:

Ortiz was a teenager, one of the few Latinas in her private high school. Fresh from art class, she went to the school store to look for a gift for her sister. The teacher in charge told her to stop handling the goods.

"She told me, 'Don't touch that because your hands are dirty,' " Ortiz recalled of the conversation in 1996.

Ortiz looked at her hands, puzzled. She'd just washed them, she said.

"She said, 'It doesn't matter how many times you wash them. They'll always be dirty,' " Ortiz said.

Stunned, Ortiz went to the principal's office and complained. She asked for an apology but one never came. Instead, Ortiz was allowed to paint a mural in the school auditorium that celebrated diversity.

"I always knew that I needed to stand up if someone was unjust and speak out and not be afraid," Ortiz, now 33, said.

It was her first mural. It definitely wouldn't be her last. In fact, it would define her work for years to come.

Since then, Ortiz has created more than 30 wall-size paintings, most of them in Philadelphia. For a majority of the projects, she has worked with youth or local residents. Her themes often celebrate diversity and call for social justice.

"She is so incredibly devoted to her practice, she's able to use her art as a vehicle to represent people in communities whose histories are often lost," said Jane Golden, director of the Mural Arts Program, the nonprofit that, since 1984, has created more than 3,000 public art works in the city; October is Mural Arts Month. "She's able to build trust and create respect and inspire people because she believes in people, and that comes across."

Ortiz's latest work, titled "Aqui y Alla," or "Here and There," covers a wall on South Sixth Street just past Dickinson. The mural tells the stories of Mexican immigrant youth in South Philadelphia, stories of difficult adjustments, homesickness, and struggles to succeed. Students from Furness High School worked with Ortiz on the project, as did 10 youngsters who painted some panels back in Mexico.

"The mural is not going to resolve the issues of immigration, but it becomes a point of conversation," Ortiz said. "It becomes a point of consciousness, educating our community, bringing that conversation to the table, and being present with no apologies. This is our story. This is where we're coming from. It gives a more intimate perspective on how immigration affects people . . . This is reality."

Ortiz grew up in Bella Vista and now lives with her husband across the street from her childhood home. She is a child of immigrants: Her mother is from Colombia, her father from Puerto Rico. Her mother used to clean houses and offices in Society Hill and work at a fruit and vegetable stand in the Italian Market. Her father washed floors and operated an elevator in Center City. Ortiz said she and her two siblings never wanted for anything.

"I was never embarrassed," she said. "I found honor and value in what my parents did because they were doing it for us."

Ortiz learned to draw on scrap paper her mother brought home from her jobs. She would spend summers sketching, teaching herself anatomy and composition.

"It's how I really built my skills," she said.

With the help of a dedicated art teacher, Ortiz received a scholarship to Moore College of Art & Design's Young Artist program. She remembers her first day, when the other students came in with professional-looking portfolios, and she had scraps of paper, a pencil, and a marker.

But that didn't derail her. Neither did a guidance counselor's advice that she look into community college despite her strong grades. Instead, she said, she worked to hone her craft, eventually being accepted into Moore's undergraduate program.

Ortiz remembers crying when she told her mother she was going to major in fine arts. Her family members were all drawn to more stable jobs, like accounting or law. There were no artists.

"She basically gave me the reassurance that whatever I put my mind to, she knew I was going to work hard and be successful," said Ortiz, who also has a master's degree in arts and culture management from Rosemont College. "And that was enough for me to move forward and make that decision."

In 2011, years after her own graduation, Ortiz was invited back to Moore to give the college's commencement speech.

"It's important for our students to realize there are still some prejudices out there against women. Especially women of color," said Deborah Deery, an assistant professor and visiting scholar at Moore. "Even if you've done great work like Michelle has . . . it's always an uphill battle."

Ortiz began partnering with the Mural Arts Program when she was 21. Her first project was in North Philadelphia. While she worked, passersby would ask if she was the artist's assistant or the paint mixer.

They were surprised she wasn't male. They were surprised she was Latina.

"My presence alone was breaking stereotypes, whether I realized it or not," she said. "It was challenging the perceptions of what a young Latina woman should be doing."

That still happens. When Ortiz was working on "Aqui y Alla" with four male artists from Mexico, people would ask her which man was the lead artist.

"Aqui y Alla" was also a collaboration with student artists in Philadelphia and Mexico. Most of the American students were Mexican immigrants, and they jumped at the chance to tell their stories with pictures.

One student, 18-year-old Freddy, had left behind his grandmother in Mexico when he was 11. He promised he'd come back to visit, but she died before he could do so. Freddy painted a mural panel featuring a stairway leading to heaven in her honor. He also worked on a section that reads "We are workers, not criminals."

Another student, Diana, worked on the mural, and her picture is one of the featured images. When the 14-year-old came to the United States a few years ago, she spoke no English. Now she's at the top of her class, Ortiz said.

"There's a quote, 'We leave who we are for who we can become,' " Ortiz said.

Ortiz wonders what would have happened to her if she had let the negative words of that high school teacher shape her. That's why, she said, she works with young people to create meaningful art. She hopes they look at her, someone whose skin is the same color and who speaks the same languages, and find inspiration.

"These are my ways of giving back because I know how hard it is," Ortiz said. "I also feel it's a responsibility that I carry. By giving back, I'm also giving homage to all the people who have helped me arrive where I am."