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Finding gigs is even more difficult than usual for artists during the COVID-19 pandemic as the budgets of galleries, museums and companies willing to spice up their advertising with actual art are getting tighter. That makes Denver artist Tony Ortega’s hot phase in the chaos even more impressive.
Ortega is known for its colorful works that reflect its cultural heritage. He was recently celebrated at the opening of the Día de los Muertos 20th Anniversary exhibition at the Longmont Museum, which will run through January 9, honoring the Mexican holiday and some of its family members. Ortega also managed to find a supportive industry that didn’t face a financial crisis during the pandemic. Working with cannabis food company Ripple, he exhibited his art from the Día de los Muertos on several of the company’s packages this fall. A small part of the profit from the products with Ortenga’s art will be donated to an organization of his choice: the RedLine Contemporary Art Center. (According to Ripple, this marks the start of an annual initiative between the company and the local arts community.)
“We followed Tony’s art, especially as a local Chicano artist, and spoke briefly with him about a partnership earlier this year. We were thrilled to find out that he’s not just a cannabis user, he’s also a huge Ripple fan. “explains Ripple managing director Coree Schmitz. A medical marijuana user for several years, Ortega is pleased to have added pharmacies to the list of places he currently works.
We met Ortega, one of the city’s most respected artists, to hear his thoughts on the increasing American interest in Día de los Muertos and his preferred methods of cannabis use.
Westword: Given your career, the Longmont exhibition and the Ripple partnership, why is Día de los Muertos so important to you?
I found out about the vacation while living as a student in Mexico. I had never seen or experienced anything like it. When I became an artist and got involved in the Chicano art scene here, we started with exhibitions about the Día de los Muertos in the early or mid-1980s. Then the Chicano Humanities and Art Council got its own room and we exhibited and paid tribute to our deceased family members. In the 1990s, my wife and I went to Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico, as well as Oaxaca for Día de los Muertos so we could experience it first hand. Since then, it has been part of an annual tribute to our ancestors. For me this is my mother, grandmother, great aunt, father and stepfather. I’ve just built an altar for them for the Longmont exhibition.
Ortega’s “San Samuel Muerto”, one of the featured pieces in the Longmont exhibition.
How do you rate the rise in popularity and commercial interest of Día de los Muertos in recent years?
People began to realize that it’s not macabre or scary. It pays homage to people who were close to you – family members, friends, or people whom you have chosen to honor throughout history. I could pay tribute to Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera if I wanted. Although we call it the Day of the Dead, I really think it’s the Day of the Living and a time for us to remember that we are all mortal and to pay tribute to people we love. It’s a lovely celebration of honor, care, and relationships.
Afraid to work with a cannabis company?
I guess I really haven’t thought about it. Marijuana existed long before the United States. It was used as a drug, a party drug, and on all sorts of 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 medicinal purposes – I have arthritis in my knees, feet, and arms – so CBD helps me with pain and gives me a good night’s sleep.
I have a medical marijuana license that I’ve had for about five or six years. It doesn’t cure my arthritis, of course, but it does help reduce the sharpness. I didn’t feel any ambivalence about working with Ripple.
Do you ever use cannabis for creative purposes or is it kept primarily for medical reasons?
I wouldn’t say it improves or adds anything to my creative process. I would like to think that I am creative 24/7 and even during my dreams. Sometimes the best time for me to be creative is when I’m not expecting it, like when I’m riding my bike, showering, or just waking up. I know there are moments in the evenings when I’ll take THC and CBD and I’ll have a revelation – but I still don’t know if it helps or harms my creativity. I really don’t.
Where is the Denver arts scene right now amid COVID-19?
Like any other community, our world has been turned upside down. It has canceled exhibitions, closed nonprofits, art spaces, and galleries; Sales have slowed and opportunities have been canceled or postponed. Slowly but surely, live openings and exhibitions became virtual. In the beginning we had to isolate ourselves and protect ourselves locally, which meant we were at home or in the studio a lot. The funny thing, however, is that artists are already doing that. But that just gave me more time to work in the studio.
The economy has slowly opened up and artists and galleries are adapting to this new normal. It changed everything in life and life informs us as artists, even if they are simple things. Now some people wear masks in my paintings, and I’ve made a short series of drawings about Black Lives Matter. My work hasn’t changed dramatically, but it has been adapted to the new normal.
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Thomas Mitchell has been writing about everything cannabis-related for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news en route to publications like the Republic of Arizona, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.