How Cruz Ortiz Finds Optimism in a Blank Canvas

Optimism correspondent Dyar Bentz and San Antonio-based artist Cruz Oriz share a conversation about optimism + creativity.

Drawing inspiration from his bicultural Tejano upbringing along the border, San Antonio artist Cruz Ortiz employs stylized visual art in many mediums to explore the unique juxtaposition of the converging cultures of modern day Texas. With his creative design firm & print shop, Snake Hawk Press, Ortiz collaborates with many important companies, nonprofits, and political movements to design inspiring, socially impactful material and content.

Dyar Bentz: Can you remember any visual art influences from childhood? Did any single instance spark that interest for you?

Cruz Ortiz: I think it was several things. I understand art to be a lot more than visual. We as humans go through life and often think, wait, was that art?? You know, falling in love can be seen as an art moment.

As a kid I definitely know that I had it in me to do stuff and I remember totally coloring my parents walls. I remember getting onto my parents’ headboard and drawing huge drawings all the time, like, directly onto the wall with crayon. I think at an early age it was in me and it’s so funny because my parents didn’t really encourage me to be an artist, it was the complete opposite.

DB: Usually the kid coloring on the walls is a frightening prospect, but maybe yours were signs of early talent?

CO: *Laughs* Yes, but I always tell everyone, when I smell bleach I always think about my childhood because as soon as I drew, my mom would come in shouting “¡Qué estás haciendo!” (What are you doing!) and she would have a bucket of water and some bleach and a rag and I would be there cleaning it all up. And you’d think I’d learn, but no, I always ended up doing it again.

DB: You live in San Antonio now, but you’re from Houston originally, right?

CO: I was born in Houston. My parents were Catholic missionary workers and we moved to El Paso to work with the Jesuits out there, building food banks in Juarez. I went to Mass at the Juarez city dump every Sunday. *Laughs* That was my reality. And definitely, being in that world influenced my approach to making art because it’s not just about making pretty pictures. Everything I do has real psychological, social, cultural introspection.

I pride myself on being from Texas. Texas is HUGE, not just in land, but in scope of culture, of life. I never left. I never had a desire to go to New York City or Berlin or LA, and as a contemporary artist there’s a big pull to those epicenters but no, this is my epicenter. I tell people all the time that I feel so honored to be an artist in a time like this, because it’s a big turn in the history of Texas. It’s really exciting.

DB: So I’m mostly aware of your print work and your stylized portrait paintings, would you say these are your primary artistic mediums?

CO: I think right now they are. I don’t like to pin myself down as a certain type of artist. A lot of people ask, “Oh you’re an artist! What do you do? Do you do oils?” And I say I do it all.

I was definitely trained as a print-maker, that’s always been my heart and soul, because I come from punk rock-landia. I started off screen-printing for all my friends, t-shirts and posters, and I just loved the community and what the punk rock scene was about, and I think it was within that I found out that I should pursue making art at a different level.

I always think, what are the different components that make up my work? I’m definitely interested in language, in romantic notions of the human spirit, in collaboration, with artists and with communities. I’m definitely interested in social political movements and how they function, in history and also how artists have intertwined themselves in becoming the messenger but also a component for messaging.

DB: I really love the bright, popping color of the portraits. What’s going on there? What are you expressing with your vibrant colors?

CO: It’s funny, I always step back from the canvas and say: damn, dude! Slow down on the color!

But I’m just cranking stuff out. We could go into the formal uses of color & tone and post-impressionism and all that, but for the most part it’s come to the point where I don’t even think about that stuff. The stuff I’m thinking about is thematic, is underlying message. The color is a language, and I’m so fluent in that language that I’m just babbling on the canvas.

DB: You were an art teacher for a bit as well?

CO: Yes. I was at Healy Murphy, an alternative school in downtown San Antonio, and also at Lee High School. Literally, I wanted to be a teacher for one reason, I wanted to help save the world. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, but I figured let’s try doing art education.

“Take optimism and turn it towards opportunism.”

DB: I have a sister who’s a school teacher, and I know that a heavy sense of optimism is almost a prerequisite to be successful in that job.

CO: Totally. I always taught my class, I need you to figure stuff out. If we talk about optimism I think that’s one of the biggest lessons anyone can provide. To provide curiosity, and a pathway for curiosity. It’s at that point you can take optimism and turn it towards opportunism. “Here’s a blank sheet of paper. Now do something with it!” I’ve already taught you how to paint, how to draw, how to journal your life, I taught you how to recognize the good from the bad…now, let’s create something. And a lot of them shut down! And I say no no no, you can see it. It’s right in front of you. Get your hand, put it on the paper, and start making marks. Something will happen. Good will come from this.

DB: And how was the transition from teaching to a full-time career producing art?

CO: At the time I thought, I have a nice paycheck, I’ve got benefits, but it became really demanding and just got to the point where I needed to bail. I had to make moves, and along with my wife, we figured it out.

I did a collaboration with a Vodka company to design for their bottle, they really wanted to collaborate with a contemporary artist. And that’s when we decided to start a graphic design company called Snake Hawk Press. We hired some folks and designers and were really able to crank out a lot of work. It’s been really awesome, to switch from that teaching position, helping save the world, but now we’re doing it on a whole nother level to where we’re able to help influence other companies to join us by saying, you know what, we don’t all have to be greedy jerks.

DB: What is your current primary goal for your artwork moving forward?

CO: Honestly, just making sure that my team is well taken care of. Then I’m fully able to get in the studio and just crank it out. I’ve got so many amazing ideas, so many things to say, and it’s like a writer, if you give her enough paper she’ll just keep on writing.

DB: Last, can you just speak on the importance of expressing your thoughts and feelings through your art?

CO: As artists we have been granted a special gift in that we understand the world in a different manner. I find it necessary to present my findings, my understandings of what’s going on. That’s what it means to be inspired, to take in the scope of society, be it social, cultural, or political and to use that as your stimulus. Then, through that lens, the work you produce will reflect upon what’s currently happening. I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And there’s a lot to be said, especially in Texas.

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