Born in Houston, Texas in 1972, Cruz Ortiz knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist. After attending high school in El Paso, Ortiz received his BFA in Printmaking from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2000. Ortiz then went on to work as a public-school instructor for 15 years at two San Antonio high schools while simultaneously developing his artistic practice. Today, Ortiz is an internationally renowned Texas-based artist known for offering a critical stance to social and political narratives in Texas through both his artistic practice and his activism.

Ortiz has had solo exhibitions at ARTPACE (where he was an artist-in-residence in 2005), the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, California, and the Judd Foundation in Marfa, Texas, to name a few. He has been invited to exhibit in international festivals at the Louvre in Paris, France, the San Juan Triennial in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Blue Coat Museum in Liverpool, England. His work is in the permanent collections of Ruby City in San Antonio, Texas, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the University of Texas at San Antonio Library Special Collections, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Ortiz is best known for his Chicano-Pop sensibility, which he achieves by fusing personal experiences growing up in South Texas with consumerist imagery and pop-cultural references, such as a bottle of Desert Door sotol and lyrics by Selena Quintanilla. Ortiz’s “Nuevo Texas” aesthetic consists of bold, graphic Spanglish text, colorful screen prints, abstracted figurative portraiture, and dreamy landscapes that he uses to critically examine historical, social, and political narratives. Ortiz works in a range of mediums, from painting and printing to sculpture and video work, but more recently he has been using long-established institutionalized modes, such as portraiture, to institutionalize Tejano culture and figures that have largely been marginalized in art history as well as in American history. In doing so, Ortiz uses painting as a tool for decolonization by focusing on social and political issues in La Frontera (The Texas-Mexico borderlands) to preserve and make visible that colonial efforts have attempted to erase from history.

Ortiz continues a lineage of artists using art as a vehicle to express their cultural heritage, advocate for civil rights, and bring attention to historical narratives that have predominantly been skewed or made invisible. In the 1960s and 70s, the Chicano Art Movement drew stylistic inspiration from Pre-Columbian art, European painting techniques, and Mexican Muralism to create work that established Chicanx artistic identity and bring awareness to collective histories of the United States rather than the long-perpetuated colonialist settler’s narrative. Recently, The Smithsonian American Art Museum highlighted printmakers of the Chicano Art Movement alongside contemporary printmakers in the exhibition, “¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now” curated by E. Carmen Ramos and Claudia Zapata. Most of the Chicanx prints featured in the show were donated by Chicano art historian and former Stanford professor, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, in 1995 (In 2020, The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery acquired Ortiz’s 2018 portrait of Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto in an Aztlán dream). The printmakers featured in “¡Printing the Revolution!”, such as Rupert García, used printmaking to create posters featuring bold, graphic text and portraits of Latino figures in support of organizations, like the United Farm Workers. Like García and other Chicanx artists, Ortiz uses the reproducibility of printmaking to provide accessibility to the masses and to disseminate messages widely. Using painting and printmaking, long-established modes of artistic expression, Ortiz promotes Tejano culture by incorporating objects from everyday life and offering criticism on political matters, such as national immigration policies. For Ortiz, his artistic practice is in itself, activism.

Yet, Ortiz’s activism goes beyond the canvas. Throughout living in San Antonio for over two decades, Ortiz has collaborated with cultural art organizations and social justice organizations. Ortiz and his wife, Olivia, are also on the boards of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Planned Parenthood of South Texas, and Eva’s Heroes. Further, they own and operate their own creative studio together, Burnt Nopal, focusing on social justice and progressive advocacy by combining contemporary art and graphic design in collaboration with activists, companies, and nonprofit organizations. Burnt Nopal has created designs for the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Festival, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Julian Castro’s 2020 presidential campaign. Cruz also helped establish the San Anto Cultural Arts Mural Program.

Ortiz represents the importance of the artist’s role in using the visual arts for necessary change and social awareness, making him a crucial figure in the Texas art scene. To collect Ortiz’s work is to support his cause for social justice and decolonization. Through social activism and artistic practice, Ortiz is an advocate for democracy and the democracy of the arts.