Q&A: Denver artist Tony Ortega talks about pastels, teaching and inspiration
(Editor’s note: This story originally ran Friday, Feb. 28. Ortega called Sunday, March 2 to cancel the visit because of a family emergency. The plan is to reschedule and bring him back in a different school year, organizers said.)
Although he was born in New Mexico, artist Tony Ortega has lived in Colorado for most of his life. Growing up in the Southwest — he maintains strong ties to New Mexico — influenced his paintings, both in the use of bold color and in the subject matter.
“My artwork reflects the Latino experience through individual slices of life of the community, family and other sectors of urban and rural society,” Ortega wrote on tonyortega.net, where people also can view his artwork and a long list of international shows he has exhibited in or awards he has won.
One of the most identifiable aspects of Ortega’s paintings are faceless individuals. He doesn’t put faces on his subjects to give the viewer freedom to interpret the work but also because the individuality of the people aren’t as important as the community setting, he said.
The Art Heritage Speakers Fund will bring Ortega to the Grand Valley in early March for a number of workshops with School District 51 students and a lecture and pastel demonstrations for the public. (Editor’s note: This story originally ran Friday, Feb. 28. Ortega called Sunday, March 2 to cancel the visit because of a family emergency.)
In a phone interview in advance of his visit, Ortega talked about his background in art, why he works in pastel, and his unique trait of leaving people faceless in paintings. He was in his office at Regis University, where he has worked for 10 years.
Melinda Mawdsley: Thank you for your time. What do you teach at Regis?
Tony Ortega: I teach mainly painting, drawing, a little print making. I teach a little in our core curriculum: art appreciation and two diversity classes related to art and art history. I’m mostly a studio professor.
Mawdsley: Could you talk a little about your background in art.
Ortega: I see myself as being an artist from a very young age. I was raised by my grandmother who was a seamstress. I would hang out with her, and she would give me scraps of material and a needle and thread, and I’d sew. From a very young age, I saw her working and saw it as a creative outlet. ... Growing up, I did lawn jobs for people. In the neighborhood, there was a professional artist and I saw he’d make portraits, landscapes. He was kind of an impressionist. He became a model. I majored in business and Spanish with a minor in Latin American Studies at (University of Colorado-Boulder), then went to Rocky Mountain School of Art for art school. I was in my 30s and went back to get my Master’s Degree (he got his Master’s in Fine Arts in 1995 from CU Boulder) because at that time I knew it was the entry to academia.
Mawdsley: I’m guessing that business degree came in handy when it came time to sell your own work.
Ortega: I had my business degree to help me organize myself in marketing and accounting, getting my work out there, pricing my work and distributing it. It was very helpful. At Regis, I help teach the senior thesis class, and that’s part of what I teach my students.
Mawdsley: As a teacher, what’s it like knowing students here are, in turn, learning about your life through the Art Heritage Program?
Ortega: I sort of see my role as an artist and as a teacher. Obviously, when I’m modeling or demonstrating for any of my students, I’m more or less teaching them my style without them wanting to be clones of me — my understanding of color, my understanding of the human figure. My service is being a teacher of art. I like making art, looking at art, talking about art and being around people who like all of the above. It goes hand in hand.
Mawdsley: What do you hope children take away from lessons about you?
Ortega: Art is an expressive language. You can express your feelings, hopes, wants. I work as an expressionist. I stylize. I abstract a little bit. Some people get caught up in art looking like a photo or landscape. I hope in my style, people paint more with their heart than mind. ... There are sort of two ways of learning. One way is more quantitative and that helps explain our outer world. Creative arts help express our inner world. Sometimes, we can quantify this and that, but there has to be this outlet for creativity of expression.
Mawdsley: So that’s where the faceless subjects in your work come from. You are leaving it up to the viewer to imagine who it is.
Mawdsley: Where did that idea come from?
Ortega: I went to art school and took this pastel workshop, and (pastels) aren’t like a fine point pencil or fine brush. You make a bigger mark. When you make a bigger mark — and now I’ve learned technique — but then I learned to simplify. After a while, I began to realize my work wasn’t about the individual. It was about the collective. Then, another thing, I like my viewers to complete my image. It’s sort of evolved.
Mawdsley: What specifically do you enjoy about pastel?
Ortega: It’s very immediate. It’s very forgiving. If you make a mistake, it’s easy to change it. You can physically mix and rub it, but the kind of mixing I do is optical mixing. Your eye mixes it.
Mawdsley: Where did the inspiration for the specific images depicted in your paintings come from?
Ortega: They are all images from what I’ve experienced through my travels throughout the Southwest or Mexico, through living in Denver. Some are more intimately about family. ... Some are more formal. Some are more observation.
Mawdsley: Sounds like they are keeping you busy while you visit Grand Junction.
Ortega: I’m giving some workshops to kids. I’ll also have an art exhibit and give some workshops to adults. We all will be working in pastels on darker paper. Kids tend to be attracted to animals. With adults, I’ll have more complicated compositions. ... I’ve been in Grand Junction about half a dozen times. (An Ortega mural painted several years ago hangs in Riverside Educational Center.) I’ve exhibited at The Art Center. Through Connie (Robbins-Brady in the Art Heritage Program) and the school district, I’ve been there three times. I like stopping in Palisade for the wine. When my son was little, I liked stopping to see the dinosaurs. (He said with a laugh.)