UM alum Xavier Cortada engages community with art and activism

Artist Xavier Cortada holds a yard sign from his project "The Underwater." Photo credit: Xavier Cortada Studio

Whether it be through youth mentorship or elaborate murals, artist and UM alumnus Xavier Cortada has dedicated himself to serving the people of South Florida for decades. Most recently, he has done this by merging art and environmental activism in a way that engages his audience.

The impact of this work led to him being inaugurated as the Miami-Dade County (MDC) artist-in-residence by MDC Mayor Daniella Levine Cava this past summer. It has also allowed him to travel the world to both learn and teach others about the impact of climate change.

Cortada has contributed to UM in more ways than one throughout his career, whether that be displaying his art around campus, teaching a new generation of UM students or providing them with an opportunity to contribute to his valuable work.

While attending UM, Cortada initially pursued a pre-medical track in hopes of helping his community as a doctor. However, his involvement in student government and volunteer opportunities ultimately led him to major in public administration.

“[It] all felt pretty much aligned with someone who grew up in a Miami that had been, at that moment in the 1980s, really torn along racial divides,” Cortado said. “A Miami that had an influx of immigrants who needed to be integrated into society.”

Xavier Cortada speaks to UM students at an on-campus Plan(T) event, where they later planted hundreds of mangrove trees.
Xavier Cortada speaks to UM students at an on-campus Plan(T) event, where they later planted hundreds of mangrove trees. Photo credit: Xavier Cortada Studio

After graduating, he immediately began work as the Director of Juvenile Violence and Delinquency Prevention Programs with UM, working directly with youth from communities like Little Havana and Wynwood in the early 1990s. Cortada formed a youth group as a safe space for youth to share personal problems.

“Eventually, the work we were doing was celebrated — important enough, that they asked me to start giving speeches all over Latin America, and eventually Africa,” Cortada said. “It was in those trips that I discovered the power of art to communicate ideas.”

With a father who was a painter, art had always been a constant in Cortada’s life.

“As a kid, I remember I was an art critic almost before I was a painter,” Cortada said. “At night, we’re there on the floor of the room and I was helping him. And then he had his paint and I was on the side working a little canvas with his leftover paint. And I would tell him, ‘No, this thing needs more yellow, it’s more orange.’ And that’s literally how I started my career.”

During his time at Miami Senior High School, Cortada found himself in a community of Cuban and Latin American immigrants from countries like Nicaragua and Colombia seeking refuge in Miami.

After seeing his own family of Cuban exiles find support and resources in Miami during the 1960s, Cortada dedicated years of his life to doing the same for a new generation of immigrants and other marginalized groups.

“There was a lot of turmoil in Miami, and I just found that public policy and trying to address those issues was a more laudable thing to do,” Cortada said.

It wasn’t until later in his career that he began to see art as a universal language, one that could help him spread awareness of the very issues he’d been fighting his entire adult life.

“All throughout life, there’s always been an aspect of me that uses art making and creativity as a way of being and navigating through life,” Cortada said.

He began painting murals for cultural and youth centers around the U.S. and in countries like Bolivia and Peru. Cortada also painted countless murals about social issues like the AIDS epidemic, racial inequality and disability rights within Miami.

It was the early 2000s when he began to shift to eco-art, specifically with the creation of “Miami Mangrove Forest” which was painted with Hands on Miami volunteers on I-95 underpasses. In 2006, the Reclamation Project was born, which consisted of Cortada and several local volunteers planting mangrove trees around Miami and still continues today.

In 2007, Cortada received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Antarctic Artists and Writers fellowship that allowed him to visit Antarctica and create art and permanent installations. During this trip, he learned the danger sea-level rise poses to his hometown — much of the work he created at both the South and North poles during this time reflects this realization.

While at the North Pole, Cortada began "Native Flags," where he reclaimed land threatened by development for nature.
While at the North Pole, Cortada began "Native Flags," where he reclaimed land threatened by development for nature. Photo credit: Xavier Cortada Studio

“Part of what happened at the South Pole and McMurdo Station is that I hung out with a bunch of scientists who explained to me just how dire the situation was in Miami,” Cortada said.

A personal issue for him, Cortada’s childhood experiences living in Miami’s rare ecosystem sparked the inspiration for The Reclamation Project.

“I remember my dad and, as a family, interacting a lot with the nature around us, with Biscayne Bay,” Cortada said. “I remember him going to Key Biscayne, to Bear Cut, to Crandon Park and showing you the mangroves and fossilized reefs and comparing them to the reefs of the shoreline of his fishing village in the northern coast of Cuba.”

More recently, he’s been named the artist-in-residence at Pinecrest Gardens, where he’s been given studio space. His permanent exhibits can be found all over the grounds, including the “Longitudinal Installation,” a ceramic replication of a piece made in the South Pole.

He’s also launched the Xavier Cortada Foundation, which is dedicated to organizing community members and helping them educate their peers through art.

Besides the Reclamation Project, the Foundation’s main focus is “The Underwater,” an interactive art project which aims to engage the people of Miami into a conversation about the threat sea level rise may pose to them.

“What Xavier has done with The Underwater is used visual art and data to have people realize our collective vulnerability,” said Adam Roberti, the Executive Director of the Cortada Foundation.

Essentially, the Foundation creates yard signs with these numbers to scatter around the area, leaving the number out of context to inspire curiosity. The backdrop of these signs are ice paintings Cortada did during his time in Antarctica, painted with the Antarctic ice that threatens to devastate Miami.

“The idea is that as this Antarctic ice is melting, the sea levels are rising. And when it reaches that number, your house is underwater,” Roberti said.

This project, along with the action he hopes young people take against climate change before its effects are irreversible, was discussed by Cortada in a recent TED talk hosted in London. Cortada and Roberti also attended the UN Climate Change Conference (26CON) in Glasgow, Scotland last year.

Xavier Cortada speaks at the TED Countdown London Session. Oct. 3, 2022. London, England. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED
Xavier Cortada speaks at the TED Countdown London Session. Oct. 3, 2022. London, England. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED Photo credit: Gilberto Tadday

“Activism from our youth was — in a positive way — contagious. It was intoxicating, it was wonderful to see them mobilize hundreds of thousands of people through the streets of Scotland,” Cortada said. “I want that kind of excitement, coupled with creative solutions, to be the stuff that our UM students are inspired to do.”

At UM, Cortada works as a professor in the Art Department with secondary appointments in the Law School and the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, teaching a class that combines art with social justice.

Additionally, Cortada’s work can be found in buildings across campus, including his piece “Flight of the Ibis,” located on the third floor of the Shalala Student Center. He also donated multiple art pieces to UM’s Newman Alumni Center for their grand opening.

“He was active in the various boards that we have here, and he wanted to donate art to have on the wall,” Chalece Erixon, Senior Director of the Newman Alumni Center and Development Resources, said. “He was incredibly generous with his resources, and it really made a tremendous difference in terms of us being able to open with a fully realized space.”

For current UM students, the Cortada Foundation based in Pinecrest Gardens offers “two layers of involvement” for those who are passionate about the work they do.

“One would be the lowest level of involvement, which is just ‘Come to our events. Come visit us at Pinecrest Gardens, at the [Pinecrest] Farmers’ Market, become engaged in our projects, posts. Share the projects that you do with us on social media,’” Roberti said. “The next level of involvement would be through an internship. I currently have six UM student interns, and I am constantly looking for more as the semesters go on.”

Although Cortada believes Miami can do more to protect vulnerable communities, he finds hope in young people and their dedication to defend their future.

“I’ve seen an incredible amount of enthusiasm, care and activism among our young population,” Cortada said. “And that is inspiring in ways that young people would find really, really hard to comprehend — for someone who’s twice, maybe even three times their age, to be inspired and nurtured by the passion and activism that they bring to the fight.”

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