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Artist Tony Ortega Celebrates Day of the Dead During a Pandemic

Artist Tony Ortega drawing on the wall of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.
Artist Tony Ortega drawing on the wall of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.
Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

During Día de Los Muertos, people remember and pay respect to deceased friends and relatives. For artist Tony Ortega, that means celebrating the three most important women in his life: his mother, grandmother and great-aunt.

Ortega was an infant when his mother brought him to Denver from Pecos, New Mexico, searching for better job opportunities. While she moved from working as a janitor, waitress and nurse's aide in a senior home to eventually getting an admissions-clerk position at Denver General Hospital, she always wanted the best for her son. His grandmother was a seamstress and storyteller who made clothes, embroidered, crocheted and quilted, which influenced Ortega's artistic beginnings. His great-aunt also helped raise him.

At the Longmont Museum's twentieth-anniversary Día de Los Muertos exhibit, which runs from Friday, October 2, through January 9, Ortega plans to honor them all. 

"[El Día de Los Muertos] helps me take time out of the craziness of life to respect, honor, remember my family and friends who have died," the artist explains. "We call it Day of the Dead, but maybe it's more a day for the living."

Now, after 38 years of making various forms of art, including prints, drawings, paintings, murals and illustrations for children's books, Ortega keeps on living, teaching and creating — even during a pandemic that has upended the art world.

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Ortega's creative practice was inspired by his time studying commercial Spanish, business and fine art; he eventually received his MFA in 1995 from the University of Colorado Boulder. He also spent time learning in Xalapa, Mexico.

"In the late ’70s, Xalapa was a small colonial college town in the mountains, about three to four hours east of Mexico City," Ortega recalls. "It was a very friendly community. Small towns and farming were very close, and there was always fresh food to enjoy. The Xalapa experience showed me how much I am Mexican and how much I am also very American. I learned about hybridity, but I did not know the word back then."

Hybridity — the mixing of cultural iconography and art forms  — has been central to his work, which is rooted in magical realism and confronts and untangles reality. 

A Tony Ortega illustration from Days of the Dead: Aztec Adventures of Cholo, Vato, and Pano, by George Rivera.
A Tony Ortega illustration from Days of the Dead: Aztec Adventures of Cholo, Vato, and Pano, by George Rivera.
Courtesy of Tony Ortega

"With art, I can address the differences in my world, forming a new and more accurate outlook of my personal and cultural identity," Ortega says.

He also attempts to merge current issues with historical art references. For example, in his new painting "Dance Till You're Dead, Work Till You Die," about life during COVID-19, he positions artists and activists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo against the backdrop of a Grant Wood painting; dancing skeletons and people wearing masks surround them.

Like most artists, Ortega, who has been showing work locally and nationally since he had his first exhibition at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver at the age of 24, has had his creative practice upended by the coronavirus. Many of his exhibits were either canceled, delayed or closed to the public. Quick to adapt, he has found self-isolation to be a blessing, allowing him to spend more time in his home studio.

"Thanks to social distancing and the introvert in me, I have finished older work that needed touch-ups," Ortega says. "I have colored some etchings, created some online workshops, created some new artwork that speaks about and reflects my experience with COVID-19."

Ortega, who has worked as a professor at Regis University since 2004 and leads online workshops with Think 360 Arts for Learning, has moved his educational offerings online. "Some workshops are similar to the classroom, and some are very different," he explains. "The big difference is I have to evaluate and grade my college students."

Although Denver's cultural scene faces uncertainty during the pandemic, Ortega believes that talented artists will get the city through this crisis. No matter how many economic burdens the artistic community faces, he thinks it will survive.

Creativity is core to humanity, and no disease can change that.

As Ortega notes: "Art is part of being human and the human condition."

Longmont's Día de Los Muertos exhibit opens October 2 and runs through January 9, 2021. For more information, visit the Longmont Museum's website. For more about the artist, visit Tony Ortega online.

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