By Mary Jo Aagerstoun, Ph.D.
Xavier Cortada did not know he was joining the worldwide ecoart movement when he began mobilizing Miami citizens in 2005 to promote mangrove reforestation in his home town, using his artistic imagination as the instigator. He just knew something had to be done. His artistic “greening” occurred as a visceral reaction to the uprooting of hundreds of mangrove trees by earthmoving machines near his weekend refuge in the Keys. Mangroves have been a constant theme in Cortada’s life. As a child, Cortada recalls swimming through hundreds of the green cigar-shaped mangrove seed pods in Biscayne Bay near Bear Cut, a favorite location for family gatherings, and especially for his father who found this particular spot redolent of the sounds, smells, flora and fauna of his native Cuba. Later, the mangroves of his childhood memories took on new significance in Cortada’s art. In his first painting with a mangrove theme, Florida Mangrove, 2003 commissioned by the State Division of Cultural Affairs, the arrival of Spain’s empire on the American continent is depicted as occurring in the tangled roots of a mangrove forest. In 2004, Cortada’s 6 foot tall, colorfully abstract painted mangrove seedlings (Miami Mangrove Forest, 2004) “grew” in a public art metaphorical reforestation on columns beneath I-95. By 2005, Cortada was working with the seedlings themselves as his medium. As the first Reclamation Project took shape, thousands of seedlings were harvested under the supervision of the Department of Environmental Resources Management, and found temporary homes in little plastic cups, displayed first in an art installation at the Bass Museum on Earth Day, 2006 and later that year, during Art Basel Miami Beach, in the windows of Lincoln Road merchants. Finally, in February 2007, the seedlings were planted by volunteers in Bear Cut, the site of Cortada’s childhood family picnics. Ecoartists do not limit their work to objects which can be displayed in museums or galleries, and they utilize whatever materials, mangroves included, and whatever aesthetic means work best. Like his ecoartist colleagues across the globe, mobilizing community is at the heart of Cortada’s ecoart practice. The artist acts as aesthetic choreographer of collaborative action as well as premier danseur. The resulting “dance” is enacted by a corps de ballet including individual citizens who want to make a difference; scientists researching/inventing new means toward environmental health; public officials–elected and career–who create and manage legislatively mandated environment-impacting programs and regulatory entities; and whole institutions from art and science museums to local neighborhood organizations, where the public learns how to carry the dance forward. The public becomes both dancer and audience in an ecoart intervention. Unfortunately, Cortada is a little too unique in South Florida. To date, he is one of only two artists who pursue a true ecoart practice in the region. Cortada’s community action ecoart work, The Reclamation Project, adopted by the Miami Science Museum, will expand this year to include mobilizing community to restore Miami’s devastatingly low (4%) tree canopy, one yard at a time. This is a good sign that Cortada’s ecoart practice is catching on in South Florida. Let us hope for, support and work toward, the proliferation of the ecoart of Xavier Cortada. Let us also hope for, and work toward a day, when he is not so unique in South Florida, when ecoart is all around us and our water and air are cleaner for it.
Mary Jo Aagerstoun, Ph. D. is an art historian who studies contemporary art that engages important public issues. In early 2007 she launched The South Florida Environmental Art Project, a non-profit action organization whose purpose is to encourage the proliferation of ecoart and ecoartists in the region. She lives in West Palm Beach and may be reached email@example.com.