— by Alina Ladyzhensky, Associate Director of Advancement Communications
Michelle Angela Ortiz ’00 Fine Arts Hero Alumni Heroes comic book style graphic with Michelle's headshot
Michelle Angela Ortiz’s Superpowers:
  1. Visual storytelling that represents people and communities whose histories are often lost, underrepresented or co-opted
  2. Community advocacy, and tangibly supporting and uplifting the work of activists and organizers
  3. Bringing art to people where they are: in public spaces, neighborhoods and other nontraditional settings outside of galleries and museums

When Fine Arts alum Michelle Angela Ortiz ’00 recalls her earliest experiences with art, she doesn’t think of paintings hanging on museum walls. Instead, her memories are of encountering large-scale murals and other public art in various Philadelphia neighborhoods.

“The art that I experienced was in community spaces, whether through family or neighborhood gatherings or in passing through the city. Art was what I came across or interacted with, and what was accessible to me,” says Ortiz, the daughter of immigrants from Puerto Rico and Columbia, raised in a diverse South Philadelphia neighborhood. “Art was whatever was available or visible for me to connect with.”

Twenty-five years into her career as a visual artist, skilled muralist, filmmaker and community arts educator, these experiences continue to inform Ortiz’s creative practice. Through public arts projects, painting and art installations in nontraditional art settings, her work centers and creates dialogue around issues that marginalized communities and individuals face. 

Ortiz is drawn to public-facing mediums such as murals and film because of their ability to reach people where they are, and their potential to spark social change. She identifies as a “visual storyteller” who uplifts narratives that are otherwise not often heard or seen. Ortiz actively engages and involves members of the communities she depicts in her work, bringing awareness to lost histories and voices that are often silenced, and inspiring the audience to take meaningful action.

This community-oriented approach and care is evident in the “Our Market” project, which Ortiz began in 2019. “Our Market” focuses on supporting the vendors, business owners, and neighbors of the 9th Street Market, which has been the artist’s home for 40+ years and where her mother worked for over two decades. Ortiz’s goal with this project is to offer tangible, community-facing ways to tackle issues of gentrification, displacement, racism and erasure that face the market and those who reside and work there. This includes community-led tours, a digital archive that paints a more representative portrait of the market’s workers and residents, revitalized produce stands, and public art with a practical function, such as light boxes that depict stories of business owners. The project is set to continue through 2026 after Ortiz won a prestigious “Leave a Legacy” grant from Philadelphia250, the committee in charge of planning festivities for the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States.

“The 9th Street Market is a reflection of the American story and the history of this country, when we think about immigration, migration and claiming space,” Ortiz says. “All of this work is trying to find a way to create momentum in the market so that we’re defining how we want to tell our own stories.”

Looking back on her time as a Moore student, Ortiz—who also attended the Young Artists Workshop—credits Moore with shifting her perspective about the possibility of having a career in the arts. 

“My studio classes taught me dedication and determination in my practice,” she says. “Even though I had the innate skillset, that diligence and faith in your work is incredibly important as an artist and in the work that I do with communities.”

Ortiz is a 2020 Art for Justice Fund grantee, a Pew fellow, a Rauschenberg Foundation Artist as Activist fellow, and a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist National Fellow. In 2016, she received the Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Year in Review Award, which honors outstanding public art projects in the nation. She has designed and created over 50 large-scale public works nationally and internationally. Since 2008, Ortiz has led art for social change public art projects in Costa Rica and Ecuador and through the US Embassy in Fiji, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Venezuela, Honduras and Cuba.