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Q&A: Mural Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz

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Streets and buildings in Center City were blank canvases for 14 artists whose work is displayed in the Mural Arts Program’s Open Source exhibition, opening this month. Their art showcases the city’s numerous cultural identities. One of the artists, Rosemont College grad Michelle Angela Ortiz, used images and words to tell the stories of local immigrants on the very asphalt they traversed. Her other paintings can be seen on South Philly’s streets, in City Hall’s courtyard and elsewhere. 

MLT: How did you paint on the street?

MAO: I did a presentation for the streets commissioner to show him my thoughts on the project. Then we blocked off some of them during nonpeak hours. At the intersection of Ninth and Washington streets, there’s not much traffic from 1 to 4 a.m. That’s when I painted. 

MLT: What’s the mural at City Hall?

MAO: I’m still working out what it will be, but I’ll be putting an image in the center of it. I’m thinking of a mother and daughter. The compass is connected to the act of immigration and how you’re looking to find a new home. 

MLT: What are the subjects of your murals?

MAO: Immigration and the effects of deportation. People tend to see the statistics—how many immigrants are coming, how many are undocumented, how many are deported. It’s so easy to just look at the numbers. I want other people to connect to those stories and look beyond the numbers, to feel and see that person. Revealing portraits in different places around Philadelphia—where these immigrants have walked, loved and worked—is important.

MLT: What was your inspiration for this series?

MAO: Over the past five years, I’ve been creating work in direct association with the issue of immigration. Those issues have always been present in my work because I’m a child of immigrants from Colombia and Puerto Rico. A lot of the work that I’ve done has reflected stories of my parents’
homelands. There are traditions that we unconsciously continue that are very much connected to who we are and where we come from. 

MLT: What is your next project?

MAO: It’s with a team of artists, honoring the LGBTQ liaison to the city, Gloria Casarez, who passed away last October. The mural is going to be at 12th and Spruce streets, right on the 12th Street Gym. It’s a great site because there’s a lot of traffic on 12th Street. 

Photo by Tessa Marie Images.