Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview With Visual Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz


Michelle Angela Ortiz, 2018 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

We asked Michelle Angela Ortiz (2018) how she thinks artists can effect social change and about her legacy as an artist working in public spaces where, she says, “longevity of my artworks is not guaranteed.” The visual artist maintains a practice that examines issues of immigration, inequality, and human rights. She has designed and created over 50 large-scale public artworks nationally and internationally, including in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Fiji, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Venezuela, and Honduras.

Michelle Angela Ortiz Q&A: Content Block 1

Michelle Angela Ortiz Q&A: Content Block 2

Tell us about one of your works that had special significance to you.

Every work has a special meaning and offers learning moments. I would say that a stand-out work was an installation that I created at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building through my “Familias Separadas” project. The ICE building, located on 16th and Callowhill Streets in Philadelphia, is the most aggressive in the country [as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer and ProPublica]. It is the first step of deportation and where family members are first detained. On Monday, October 12, 2015, on “Columbus Day,” I organized over 30 volunteers and undocumented families from [the community-led immigrant organization] Juntos to place the words of Ana, an undocumented mother, in front of the ICE building. Together we installed the 90-foot-long words “WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS, RISKING OUR LIVES, FOR OUR FAMILIES AND OUR FUTURE.” These words were placed at the exit point where the detained family members are transported to other prisons to process their deportation. A high point in my career was this powerful moment when we gathered as ICE agents looked down at us; we stood together in front of this building that represents fear and together in solidarity became fearless. It was a moment that reinforced my mantra, which is to create work that is both poetic and powerful.

Do you think about your legacy, and if so, how does your thinking about it affect your practice?

My artworks are like artifacts that record a place and time and contribute, in part, to my legacy. I’ve become more aware of preserving and documenting my works. I am making choices on what I create and what will be temporary or permanent. As an artist working in public spaces, even the longevity of my artworks is not guaranteed. What I see as my lasting legacy are the connections to the communities I have worked with which include local artists, community organizers, mothers, fathers, and youth. Through my interactions, I have witnessed silence broken and moments of healing, and I have seen empathy turn into action. These are experiences that contribute to waves of change—whether small or large—that I hope will live on.

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