When 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 passing through the city. Art was what I came across or interacted with, and what was accessible to me,” says Ortiz, who grew up in a diverse South Philadelphia neighborhood and is the daughter of Puerto Rican and Colombian immigrants. “Art was whatever was available or visible for me to connect with.”
Twenty-five years into her career as a visual artist, muralist, filmmaker and community arts educator, these experiences still inform Ortiz’s creative practice. Through community art projects, painting and public installations in nontraditional art settings, her work centers and creates dialogue around issues that marginalized communities and individuals face. Her works actively engage and involve members of the communities that they depict, uplifting voices and stories that are often marginalized or co-opted.
Ortiz, a Fine Arts alum, 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.
“Muralism has a very strong presence within Latin American and South American communities,” she says. “I identify muralism as part of my own cultural heritage. It brings awareness to political issues to spark a different perspective. As well as feeling seen and represented, it’s a way of honoring our ancestors or people who are fighting for our communities.”
The unifying thread across all of Ortiz’s artistic endeavors is a profound belief in the power of storytelling as a form of advocacy. She identifies as a “visual storyteller” who uplifts narratives that are otherwise not often heard or seen.
With pervasive themes of community spirit, togetherness, and issues faced by marginalized individuals and families, Ortiz’s work—whether it’s a film or a public installation—inspires its audience to take meaningful action. Her documentary Las Madres de Berks, created as part of the "Familias Separadas" public art project, amplified the stories of mothers and their families who were incarcerated in the Berks County Detention Center, then one of three prisons for immigrant families in the U.S. Whenever Ortiz screened the documentary, she included an organizer presence at the event to share information about how viewers could support the cause. The Shut Down Berks Coalition, her main community partner in the project, fought for years to close the prison—and in early 2021, after years of community advocacy, the facility was shut down. Ortiz continues to show Las Madres de Berks as documentation of this time in history, and the participating mothers receive a percentage of funds from purchases of the film—another way in which her work provides concrete support for the people whose narratives she uplifts.
Ortiz sees her art as a way of creating a platform, not as “giving” anyone a voice; she centers the existing voices and existing power of communities, activists, and organizers, and they are deeply involved in the planning and editing process.
“At the forefront of this documentary are the four mothers, and they're speaking their truth. I’m not speaking on their behalf,” she emphasizes. “They’re using their own voices to share what they're comfortable with sharing. It's about understanding my role as an artist, reaching out and working with communities, and my own privilege and perspective. I'm not undocumented. I haven't been incarcerated for seeking refuge and safety. I have freedom and agency to dictate how my child should live, and even how they should be disciplined. Those are things that the families and mothers in this prison didn’t have,” Ortiz says. “I have my artistic vision, but I'm mindful of the ethics and responsibility around how a story is told and shared, and ways of honoring stories that I don't have ownership of. It has to be centered on dignity and respect.”
Our Market, Our Voices
Ortiz’s community-oriented approach and care is evident in her “Our Market” project, which she began developing in 2019. “Our Market” focuses on supporting the vendors, business owners and neighbors of the 9th Street Market, an area the artist knows intimately. The market has been Ortiz’s home for 40+ years, and is where her mother worked for over two decades.
Ortiz’s goal is to offer tangible, creative, and community-facing ways to tackle issues of gentrification, displacement, racism, and erasure that face the market and those who reside and work there. This manifests in community-led tours, a digital archive, revitalizing produce stands in the market, and creating public artwork with a functional quality, such as light boxes that provide illumination while also sharing stories of business owners. All of this comes in the midst of ongoing gentrification in the market and its surrounding area, as well as continuing efforts to rebound and rebuild from the effects of the pandemic, during which, as Ortiz notes, certain businesses and neighborhoods were allotted more aid and resources than others.
There are also communities that actively engage in the 9th Street Market’s daily landscape, but are not well-represented or typically included in the market’s history, or even in present day-discussions. A goal of "Our Market” is to examine what has already been collected in archives and to add more representation to those narratives, to paint a fuller portrait.
“The project is filling in the gaps to represent, for example, African-American laborers, the Southeast Asian refugee community and stories like my own,” Ortiz says. “What does my story, and my mother's story in particular, mean within this context and this space? This project is a moment for us, the community members, to come together and be reminded of our contributions, and our love and dedication to each other and this place we call home, which feeds and nourishes so many people in our city.”
As a winner of the “Leave a Legacy” grant competition by PHILADELPHIA250, the nonprofit leading the city’s festivities surrounding America’s 250th birthday, “Our Market” will continue through 2026. It’s an especially fitting celebration, given that the 9th Street Market has existed for over a century—and, as Ortiz notes, it is not just a unique part of Philadelphia’s history, but also an encapsulation of America’s multitudinous identity.
“The 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 really trying to find a way to create momentum in the market so that we're defining how we want to tell our own stories.”
“Our Market” is just one of Ortiz’s many community-centric art initiatives. She has designed and created over 50 large-scale public works nationally and internationally. Since 2008, she has led art for social change public art projects in Costa Rica and Ecuador, and through the U.S. Embassy in Fiji, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Venezuela, Honduras, and Cuba. She 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.