Cecilia Méndez-Ortiz: Stamps 2023 Commencement Speaker
Creating community through art. That’s the core of Cecilia (Ceci) Méndez-Ortiz’s (MFA ‘02) life and career — and an aspect of her upcoming address as the Stamps 2023 Commencement speaker.
Méndez-Ortiz didn’t know it then, but her community-building skills were nurtured beginning around age 8 when she and her younger brother navigated craft shows throughout New England with her parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. years before from Panamá. Surrounded by crafts and art, and steeped in creativity at a young age, Méndez-Ortiz assisted her family by selling their handmade pillows, quilts, clothes, and fabric toys. Their wares were quickly established across a network of craft shows in New England and New York, where the family traveled to take part in approximately 35 shows every year.
Méndez-Ortiz was a frequent presence at the craft shows, where she would meticulously arrange her mother’s products, add stuffing to sewed materials, fold business cards, talk with people, and, as she grew older, look after the booth. This team effort helped support the family and introduced Méndez-Ortiz to connecting with communities and the public, curatorial work, and “the world of craft.”
“I learned that as a maker, you can make things to change your life,” Méndez-Ortiz said. “You have the ability to be out in the world, connecting and creating. Undoubtedly, these experiences sparked my creativity.”
Now, Méndez-Ortiz is the Executive Director of the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Co-Director of the Radical Imagination for Racial Justice regranting program in Boston, Massachusetts.
Méndez-Ortiz has become a seasoned arts and culture worker since her family’s crafts shows and time at the University of Michigan. Before her commencement address on Saturday, April 29, learn more about Méndez-Ortiz’s journey as a community-building artist.
Before embarking on her current career, Méndez-Ortiz was very involved with the community as a college student.
Méndez-Ortiz holds a BA with Honors in Art from Brown University. During her undergraduate education, Méndez-Ortiz worked at the Centro Educativo Ixtliyollotl in Cholula, México, for over a year, organizing classes, workshops, and art experiences for elementary through high school students. Then, Méndez-Ortiz worked in the Education department at the Addison Gallery of American Art, where she was introduced to various impactful artists.
“The opportunities as a young person to work in the arts and with such extraordinary artists, such as Dawoud Bey, Kerry James Marshall, and many more, in the context of a cultural institution like a museum, was inspiring and profoundly impactful,” Méndez-Ortiz said. “This really got me into the intersecting worlds of art, education, and community– especially understanding the ways that I could work with an institution like a museum or cultural center, and the wider public, in my future work.”
Her passion for art, education, and community continued to blossom at U‑M, where she pursued an MFA. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant and later Adjunct Assistant Professor of the Detroit Connections course, Méndez-Ortiz collaborated with Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emerita Janie Paul, her friend and mentor, to integrate culturally informed, enriching art education at Harms Elementary School in Southwest Detroit.
Paul calls collaborating with Méndez-Ortiz in the first years of Detroit Connections “one of the great joys” of her teaching career.
“I remember the two of us sitting in my small office bouncing ideas off each other, laughing and talking — the best kind of play — sometimes with words, sometimes with drawing, collage, and simple materials. That opens the mind and lets the ideas come in,” Paul said. “Ceci led the group at Harms School in Southwest Detroit brilliantly and joyfully, creating some of the best projects I know of — adeptly bringing together children and college students in the great pleasure of creation.”
During the course, Méndez-Ortiz facilitated the design of a curriculum for students rooted in Mexican heritage– relevant to many of the students’ upbringings. Students made large-scale alebrijes, a Mexican craft of painted papier-mâché creatures, all while applying necessary math skills.
Painting Alebrijes in the Detroit Connections class, Harms Elementary School, 2001
“Young people who had struggled with math concepts could really grasp them through art, whether their first language was Spanish or English,” Méndez-Ortiz said. “They were learning these skills through art making and the creative process, and through an art form that had deep cultural relevance. Being able to connect with children and the undergraduate students who were working with them was really magical.”
The experience has stuck with Méndez-Ortiz, as she continues to work in culturally-informed, educational art spaces.
Méndez-Ortiz is happiest where art, education, community, and justice intersect. That’s why her current positions as the Executive Director of the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and as Co-Director of the Radical Imagination for Racial Justice regranting program fit her philosophy and values.
Her work reflects the values and practices most impactful from her past.
“I love having one foot in the university and one foot grounded in and with the wider community,” Méndez-Ortiz said. “I’m not content being solely within the institution. I want to be in the world.”
For example, Méndez-Ortiz’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships (CACP) brings together a cohort of MassArt students through PartnershipWORKS, a student employment program that supports students working in and with various neighborhood organizations from across Boston, as well as with CACP’s sparc! the ArtMobile. Méndez-Ortiz emphasizes bringing everyone together and bonding to create a culture of belonging. In monthly meetings, the students and various partners break bread together, develop relationships, learn the history of their neighborhoods, explore their identities, and share skills and experiences.
“For me and all of us in CACP, the notion of community building is really about creating culture and being mindful of how we begin to form relationships,” Méndez-Ortiz said. “How we radically welcome ourselves into spaces matters a lot. What we accomplish together is very important, but it’s sometimes secondary to how we build community to reach a shared goal. The process makes us all whole.”
While Méndez-Ortiz is known as a leader in arts education, she is also a renowned artist.
Her installations, prints, drawings, and bilingual animations in Spanish and English have been exhibited and screened in Mexico, Japan, and the U.S.
Inclusivity and bilingualism are some of the themes at the forefront of Méndez-Ortiz’s work and art. While Méndez-Ortiz grew up speaking English and Spanish, she says incorporating both languages into her creative practices widens the audience and messages.
“Being intentionally inclusive makes every process and conversation fuller, profound, and often complex,” Méndez-Ortiz said. “When we widen the door to our experiences, the richer it will be for everybody.”
Méndez-Ortiz created an interdisciplinary and bilingual experience at U‑M by working with the Film and Romance Language departments. She was happy to expand her work across the greater university, reaching outside the art and design realm on campus.
“I loved that there was an MFA program where I didn’t have to categorize myself as a painter or printmaker. At U‑M, you went to do the work that you wanted to make in the world. It was truly a place to be open with your creativity. I felt a sense of freedom to pursue the modes of making I wanted: the ones driven by my ideas and process,” Méndez-Ortiz said.
One of her modes of making at the time was using stop-motion animation to make what she considers visual poems in both Spanish and English. Her project, titled Teatro de La Cocina / Drama of the Kitchen, incorporated drawings of kitchen tools as metaphors for the way Spanglish (Spanish mixed with English) is created and expressed. She received critical feedback from an advisor in the Romance Language department. By creating work that crossed linguistic cultures, utilizing U‑M’s versatile resources made perfect sense.
Méndez-Ortiz has also found inspiration in recycled mailed business envelopes since 1995 and has been fascinated with their intricate prints and patterns. She slices, arranges, overlays, and weaves pieces of the envelopes to create layered artworks evocative of textiles, personal journeys, maps, and landscapes.
Méndez-Ortiz is thinking about her whole life — even her childhood craft shows — when preparing her Stamps commencement address. She plans to touch on the interconnectedness of art, design, and community, which applies to every Stamps student.
“I believe in the potential for our creative work to be made in community with one another. I’d like to focus on the values that support our connectivity and interconnectedness,” Méndez-Ortiz said.
Méndez-Ortiz says that having the opportunity to give an address at the commencement ceremony is quite an honor.
“Accepting the invitation to give this address really came from reflecting on the privilege and opportunity of having spent my time at U‑M,” Méndez-Ortiz said. “It’s not just any commencement address — it’s special to share this at the school where I did my graduate work. I value my time at U‑M very much, and I hope that what I share will offer reflection and inspiration.”
Méndez-Ortiz often reminisces on lessons that her parents taught her growing up. She says they provided the basis for her career and life values. “My parents will not be traveling to join all of us in Ann Arbor during Commencement, but they will be with us in spirit. For sure, the values and experiences from which I will draw are, in huge part, because of them.”
Stamps 2023 Commencement Program attendees and graduates will learn more about Méndez-Ortiz during her address on April 29.
Visit stamps.umich.edu/commencement for full ceremony information, and view additional creative work by Méndez-Ortiz on her website, palabraproductions.com.
Story by Katelyn Stuck.