By M. Scott Morris
FULTON – Creating a work of art can be therapy, but Wesley Ortiz doesn’t want to stop there.
“You don’t want it to be just about you,” Ortiz, 37, said. “The challenge is to present the emotions but don’t make them obvious. You don’t want to force-feed or hand-feed your audience because they’re not going to stay interested that long.”
Three of the pieces in Ortiz’s current exhibit at Itawamba Community College required him to travel deep, uncomfortable territory.
“I think these works are all about that disappointment and that heartache and, overall, just what life gives you, and not always in a good way,” he said, while standing in a roomful of his work at ICC’s W.O. Benjamin Fine Arts Gallery in Fulton.
The three pieces were part of Ortiz’s master’s thesis at the University of Mississippi, and they’re called “Tempest,” “Relinquish” and “Warfare.”
They hang alongside earlier works that display Ortiz’s skills with figurative painting and the use of color, said Shawn Whittington, fine arts instructor at ICC.
“You have to have knowledge of what we call gesture drawing. You have to have a degree of spontaneity,” Whittington said. “That’s what takes years to master. That’s what’s so difficult about figurative work. That’s what brings it alive. And you combine that with his use of color, which is a completely different set of skills.”
One of Ortiz’s earlier paintings depicts a woman waiting for a tornado to pass over. Another is a self-portrait with painted canvases in the background and a smartphone on the floor.
“That is more traditional in approach, in narrative,” Whittington said.
The recent work asks more of the viewer because it’s more abstract. The figures remain, but they’re more roughed out than before. He uses flashes of color that take a back seat to black and white and gray.
“It begins to be much more an inward expression and shows his understanding of modern painting, of expressionism,” Whittington said. “It’s much more drawing from the subconscious.”
Ortiz said it took about 37 years of living to get to that place.
An Amory native, Ortiz said he couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t creating images on paper or canvas. Early inspiration came from The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men and others from the Marvel Comics Universe.
“I grew up in the country, and I was always drawing,” he said. “Your materials tend to be what you have at hand, No. 2 pencils and notebooks. It begins with that.”
He said he was “always in his room drawing,” except that he wasn’t always in his room.
“The teachers, I don’t know what they thought about that,” he said. “Even in social studies class, I was drawing. I was paying attention – I don’t want kids to get the wrong idea – but I was always drawing, too.”
His efforts earned regional notice in the form of WCBI news from Columbus.
“It was this mural I was painting of (basketball player) David Robinson in my bedroom,” he said. “I had been working on it for about three years. They came in and did a little piece on me for the news.”
Ortiz graduated from Amory High School and decided to try to make it as a walk-on wide receiver for the Tulane University football team. He realized football wasn’t his passion during two-a-day practices in the summer.
Thanks to that news report, he had another option.
“I think the head of the art department of Mississippi State University must have seen it,” he said. “They contacted me and wanted me to come there. I’m just lucky and blessed that people saw my work and my passion for the work.”
He made the decision early on to do studio art, choosing to spend eight hours a day in front of canvases rather than eight hours in front of a computer.
“I went in and said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be art,’” Ortiz said. “Looking back, I probably could have done something more lucrative. Lucrative but miserable. Definitely miserable.”
Bumps on the way
Even so, the path he chose has had its bumps along the way. Ortiz didn’t finish graduate school in Texas. His views about art didn’t line up with his professors’ conceptual and minimalist approach.
He left the program and began a years-long odyssey, going to Georgia, back to Mississippi, up to Illinois for a while, back to Mississippi, and then up to New York.
“I moved to upstate New York at the worst time ever,” he said. “In September 2008, everything collapsed with the economy.”
Ortiz contiued to draw, paint and create throughout that time. He paid the bills by painting houses, pouring concrete and laying tile. He also worked for other artists.
It was a twisting, turning time, and he put it to use when he landed at graduate school at the University of Mississippi.
“You come into graduate school with things you’re familiar with, comfortable with, and they take it all away, which is good,” he said. “You can’t grow if you’re static and don’t explore and don’t expand.
“It wasn’t a time when I knew where I was going. I knew I had all the tools and all the experience but the end result was still … it was still unsure.”
He eventually found a direction, and his comfort-zone busting paintings, including those three at ICC, impressed his thesis committee. He earned his master’s degree in May.
“There’s a lot of Texas in those paintings. There’s a lot of New York in there,” he said. “There’s about 37 years of life.”
He lives in Memphis now, and will work as an adjunct professor at Memphis College of Art next semester.
Ortiz does commission work and his own pieces, and there’s a series of paintings of blues musicians in the works, as well as ideas about sculptures.
He’s also been trying to get the attention of gallery owners, which involves marketing himself, something they didn’t teach in graduate school.
“Nobody is going to come knocking on your door looking for art,” he said.
His paintings will be on display at ICC until Dec. 11. He said he expects visitors to bring their own ideas and find their own meaning in the canvases.
Ortiz doesn’t want his work to be self-referential. The goal us to pull from his own experiences to depict emotions that his fellow human beings will recognize in themselves.
“You never want the work to be therapy,” he said. “You want to make it accessible to people. You always want it to be bigger than yourself.”