During the COVID-19 pandemic, finding gigs is even harder than usual for artists, with budgets getting thinner at galleries, museums and companies willing to spice up their advertising with actual art. Which makes Denver artist Tony Ortega's hot streak amid the chaos even more impressive.
Known for colorful works that embrace his cultural heritage, Ortega recently was feted at the opening of the twentieth-anniversary Día de los Muertos exhibit at the Longmont Museum, on display through January 9, which honors the Mexican holiday and several of his family members. Ortega has also managed to find a supportive industry that isn't facing financial crisis during the pandemic, partnering with cannabis edibles company Ripple to display his Día de los Muertos art on several of the company's packages through the fall. A small portion of profits off the products featuring Ortega's art will be donated to an organization of his choice: RedLine Contemporary Art Center. (According to Ripple, this marks the start of an annual initiative between the company and the local arts community.)
"We had been following Tony’s art, specifically as a local Chicano artist, and briefly spoke to him about a partnership earlier this year. We were thrilled to find out that not only is he a cannabis consumer, but he is a huge Ripple fan," explains Ripple general manager Coree Schmitz. Ortega's been a medical marijuana user for several years, and he says he was happy to add dispensaries to the list of places currently bearing his work.
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We caught up with Ortega, one of the city's most esteemed artists, to learn more about his thoughts on the increasing American interest in Día de los Muertos and his preferred methods of cannabis use.
Westword: Considering your career, the Longmont exhibit and the Ripple partnership, why is Día de los Muertos so important to you?
I learned about the holiday when I was living in Mexico as a college student. I had never seen or experienced anything quite like it. As I became an artist and was involved with the Chicano art community here, we started having exhibits on Día de los Muertos in the early or mid-’80s. Then the Chicano Humanities and Art Council got its own space, and we started exhibiting there and paying tribute to our family members who'd passed away. In the ’90s, my wife and I went to Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, in Mexico, as well as Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos, so we got to experience it firsthand. Since then, it's been a part of an annual tribute to our ancestors. For me, that's my mother, grandmother, great-aunt, father and stepfather. I just built an altar to them for the exhibit in Longmont.
How do you feel about Día de los Muertos' rise in popularity and commercial interest over the last few years?
People began to realize it isn't macabre or scary. It's paying tribute to people who were closer to you — family members, friends, or people you want to honor throughout history. I could pay tribute to Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera if I wanted to. Even though we call it Day of the Dead, I really think it's the day of the living, and a time for us to remember we're all mortal, and to pay tribute to people we love. It's a lovely celebration of honor, care and relationships.
Did you have any trepidation about working with a cannabis company?
I guess I really didn't think about that. Marijuana has been around for a long time, before the United States. It's been used as a medicinal drug, as a party drug and at all kinds of different levels. It became illegal after the Southwest became part of the United States because it wasn't alcohol, or a white man's drug. I use marijuana for medical purposes — I have arthritis in my knees, feet and arms — so CBD helps me with pain and allows me to get a good night's rest.
I have a medical marijuana license, which I've had for about five or six years. It doesn't cure my arthritis, obviously, but it helps take the edge off. I didn't feel any ambivalence toward working with Ripple.
Do you ever use cannabis for creative purposes, or is it mostly kept to medical reasons?
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I wouldn't say it improves or adds anything to my creative process. I would like to think I'm creative 24/7, and even during my dreams. Sometimes the best times for me to be creative is when I don't expect to be, like when I'm riding my bike, taking a shower or have just woken up. I know there are moments in the evening when I'm taking some THC and CBD and will have an epiphany — but I still don't know if it helps or hurts my creativity. I really don't.
Where is the Denver arts community right now amid COVID-19?
Like any other community, our world was turned upside down. It's canceled exhibits, closed nonprofits, art spaces and galleries; sales got slower and opportunities were canceled or postponed. Slowly but surely, live openings and exhibits became virtual. Initially, we had to self-isolate and shelter in place, so it meant being at home or in the studio a lot. Funny thing is, though, artists are already doing that. But that just gave me more time to work in the studio.
Slowly, the economy has opened up, and artists and galleries are adapting to this new normal. It's all been life-changing, and life informs us as artists, even if they are simple things. So now some people in my paintings are wearing masks, and I've done a short series of drawings on Black Lives Matter. My work hasn't changed dramatically, but it's made adjustments to the new normal.