Arts and Humanities People and Community

X Factor

From the North Pole to the South Pole and everywhere in between, the art of UM alumnus Xavier Cortada bridges conflict, inspires action, and teaches the world about science that matters.
UM alumnus Xavier Cortada and Sebastian the Ibis

Miami in the 1980s was epic, and University of Miami alumnus Xavier Cortada grew up in the thick of it. Drug wars, murders, riots, refugees—it was the perfect breeding ground for a fledgling activist to soak up the heaviness of the world and gather the quiet anger that gets things done. Like the dizzying scaffolds of mangrove roots Cortada loves to paint, his path to global renown as an artist has been bold, nonlinear, and always intertwined with a fierce undercurrent of social justice.

A New York-born Cuban-American, Cortada was a student at Miami Senior High when he won a Silver Knight Award for service to the community. Active in X Club, the school’s version of the National Exchange Club for service, he ran blood drives, manned Goodwill trucks, and assisted the elderly and immigrants. But the real grit under his skin came from the gunshot and burn victims he saw while working as an orderly at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“In a good way,” Cortada says, “I didn’t have a sheltered anything. I grew up in a very urban landscape surrounded by societal ills and along the way found institutions that helped serve those ills. The most important one, and the one that has my eternal gratitude, is the University of Miami.”

Cortada would spend 10 formative years earning three degrees at the U. As an honors undergrad, he did cardiology research at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, was speaker of the senate in Student Government, served on the University’s Board of Trustees and the Council of International Students and Organizations, was vice president of the biology club, and was tapped into the Iron Arrow, Mortar Board, and Omicron Delta Kappa honor societies. As a Lambda Chi Alpha brother (which he chose in part because of the Greek letter X in its name), he earned the nickname “Cubaba” while dancing to a Sheila E. song clad in a toga and sombrero during a Mr. UM contest (he won second place). Years later, Cubaba would become the title of his first-ever solo show as an artist, an exploration of his identity “being Cuban, being American, being both, and being neither.”

When he wasn’t studying for moot court or doodling sketches in his books, Cortada as a law and public affairs graduate student was ensconced in service—American Bar Association national vice chair, graduate advisor for Lambda Chi Alpha, president of ODK, and chair of Miami’s Youth Task Force. He also ran for public office, gaining 8 percent of the vote among four candidates for the Florida House of Representatives seat in his district. The win went to Fran Bohnsack, whose volunteer, Juan Carlos Espinosa, would years later become Cortada’s husband. (They reconnected in 1996 in an AOL chat room after Espinosa realized the anonymous screen name “Xmiami” belonged to Cortada.)

Cortada left his law school clerkship at a prestigious Miami firm to help build and lead an adolescent drug rehab center, Regis House. After passing the bar, Cortada was tapped by José Szapocznik, a UM pioneer in adolescent drug intervention, to become a UM research assistant professor and director of the Juvenile Violence and Delinquency Prevention Programs. The role led to speaking engagements around the world—and to an existential awakening somewhere near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I was 30 years old, standing on the mountain, asking myself, ‘Am I an artist, am I an academic, or am I an attorney?” Cortada recalls.  He was at the end of a three-month tour in Europe and Africa funded by the U.S. government and had just orchestrated a breakthrough teaching moment among a group of Zulu boys using sketches instead of words.

A few months later, Cortada completed his first commission, “Hand in Hand,” a mural in Leadville, Colorado, urging a conflicted community of new and established immigrants to bridge their divide. Other consciousness-raising murals around the world soon followed—for peace in Cyprus and Northern Ireland, child welfare in South America, juvenile justice at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, International AIDS Conferences in Geneva and South Africa, and minority homeownership at the White House.

“In many ways, being a lawyer is what prepared me most for being an artist,” Cortada says. “As a lawyer you have a duty to your clients, to safeguard their best interests. I have always advocated for my clients, which are the issues that are important to me. Now another client has knocked on my door, and this client is pretty needy, so I’ve taken the case.”

Cortada is talking about sea level rise, an imminent threat to coastal regions, including his beloved Miami.

“It’s inevitable that every piece of art I created for this town will be under water,” he says. “So my art is not about the object; it’s about the process.”

The process is what he calls “participatory art,” engaging people in unconventional ways to pique their curiosity and edge them into action.

“Biscayne Bay has eight new acres of mangroves because I decided to create the Reclamation Project,” Cortada says of the thousands of mangrove seedlings that were collected by volunteers and nurtured in clear plastic cups in museums, shops, and other public spaces from 2006 to 2012. The project continues to operate today in South Florida classrooms.

“I don’t care that a mangrove was planted; I care that you planted a mangrove,” he continues. “I go through all these crazy processes to create a sense of community, to create a strategy to make you more curious. Most of what I do is slow activism, creating a cadre of citizens who are more science literate and more loving and supportive to one another as we face the greatest challenge of our time.”

Expanding science literacy brought Cortada to the North and South Poles in 2007 and 2008, where he installed works highlighting environmental degradation, endangered species, and the passage of time. Eco- and science-based art remains a major focus of his work at Florida International University, where he has been an artist-in-residence since 2011.

Recent works include five giant banners depicting experiments that discovered the Higgs boson particle at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva; a 16-foot ceramic and mosaic sculpture in Little Havana honoring diatoms, the tiny water-borne organisms that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen; and a multimedia exhibition in Hialeah during the 2015 UN Paris Climate Change Conference that concluded with the city’s Republican mayor signing a climate action pledge.

Cortada’s works have appeared on every continent, but no matter where in the world he traveled, he never really left the University of Miami. He was an adjunct professor in pediatrics, psychiatry, and biology from the late 1990s through the next decade, and has worked with UM students on several participatory art projects, including the Reclamation Project. This year he was appointed to the UM Alumni Association Board of Directors.

He is presently working with the UM Alumni Association’s First Black Graduates Project to design a permanent installation at the Memorial Classroom Building that honors black history and inclusion at the University. When completed next year, it will be among dozens of works Cortada has donated to the University since that pivotal day near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In the School of Law and Frost School of Music buildings, the Newman Alumni Center, Shalala Student Center, and several other locations on and outside of the Coral Gables campus, many once-bare UM walls bear the gratitude Cortada holds for his alma mater expressed through paintings, sculptures, and digital works.

His “Flight of the Ibis,” a 15-foot by 30-foot digital tapestry that catches your eye and breath as you ascend the stairs to the top floor of the Shalala Student Center, is particularly meaningful for him because it symbolizes his own journey. Much like the way mangroves foster new life in nature, Cortada considers being a student leader who mingled with Nobel laureates and top dignitaries to be the first prop roots in his rise to a very public-facing career. It’s what allowed him, even as a young artist, to feel “an incredible comfort level” when shaking hands with such luminaries as the president of the United States and the pope.

“Mangroves are really important because they build community,” Cortada says. “A mangrove propagule lands on a sand bar, settles its roots, and begins to trap sediments. That sandbar becomes an island. The mangrove canopy provides habitat and protection, and life begins to take hold on the island.

“In many ways,” he continues, “young Xavier’s Miami needed the protection of a mangrove called the University of Miami. It allowed this ibis to grow and take flight.”