Smalltooth Sawfish

Xavier Cortada “(80.15 W:) Smalltooth Sawfish” Archival ink on paper (generated from drawings created on 11” x 8.5” carbon paper) Signed, numbered, limited edition (edition of 5) 44” x 36” 2010.


Smalltooth Sawfish | South Miami Plaza
Artist’s Statement

In these works, I showcase the animals that share South Florida with us. They make Biscayne Bay and the nearby ocean and coral reefs their home. We live alongside them. Our actions in and out of the water impact their habitat and lives. Through this public art piece at South Miami Plaza (Miami-Dade Housing Authority), I am saying, ‘You come here to visit your grandparents; they are a treasure of the community. There are also other treasures nearby that need to be cared for and protected, as well.

The Smalltooth Sawfish is among them.  It is a local fish, native to Miami.  It is also rare.

Once abundant on Biscayne Bay, Tequesta people would use its “teeth” in their ceremonies and wardrobes. 16th century Spanish explorers must have been amazed at the plentiful quantity of this remarkable fish on Biscayne Bay.

Today, their sighting is a rare spectacle.

It is one of 17 threatened and endangered species that call Biscayne National Park home.  In 2010, I created drawings of these 17 animals on carbon paper, a metaphor for the impact (or “carbon footprint”) that humans have had on that animal, even across the boundaries of a protected nature preserve. I titled it for Biscayne Bay’s longitude, “80.15 W,” to remind people that what they do here on the mainland has an impact on the Bay and on the islands inside a protected national park.

That work was part of Endangered World, a participatory eco-art project I developed to engage communities in addressing biodiversity loss. This project uses my temporary installations at the South Pole (2007) and the North Pole (2008) as a platform to engage others in thinking about biodiversity loss.

I feel compelled to draw awareness to the fact that we are presently experiencing this planet’s 6th mass extinction. Through global climate change, through habitat devastation we have destroyed these animals’ homes. As part of my art practice I try to connect humans with nature. Unlike my other related works, which are performative installations, here I decided to create a sculpture, my first of an endangered animal.  It is an object, but it is also a conceptual work.

It is made of porcelain.  Strong.  Durable.  For generations to enjoy.

However, the tragic reality is that this work will probably outlive its subject.

In art, that is pretty common.  Museums are filled with busts to memorialize individuals who left their mark.

But here, the subject is not an individual, but a whole species.

Imagine a sculptor carving the bust of the last human being.  Here the work marks what humans will have erased.

Soon, this probably the closest anyone will get to seeing a Smalltooth sawfish.


Xavier Cortada, “Sawfish,” ceramic, 2013 A public art project at South Miami Plaza (Miami-Dade Housing Authority), South Miami, FL

The Art of Diatoms


The Art of Diatoms

by Xavier Cortada, Artist-in-Residence
FIU School of Environment, Arts and Society


Fig. 1. Cortada’s one-hundred diatom works on tile (each 6″ x 6″), 2017.

I marvel at looking into a microscope.

I focus in and see time. I see the past, really far into the past. I see beautiful small aquatic plants encased in glass that lived on our planet for many millions of years. Sitting inside Dr. Evelyn Gaiser’s Algae Research lab at Florida International University in Miami, I look at a slide and see diatoms.

Diatoms transport me to a place so distant in time that it wouldn’t look like the Earth I know. They help connect me to an Earth I am trying to better understand. An Earth fluid. An Earth as process. An Earth completely interconnected. An Earth generating life forms across space and time.

Fig. 2. Xavier Cortada, Drawings of Diatoms from the Everglades, 6″ x 6″, ceramic tile, 2017.

In diatoms, I also see moments captured in time. Scientists can determine the past salinity of water by examining the glass shells of diatoms preserved in sedimentary core samples. Each diatom species has a different salinity preference, so changes in the mixture of fresh and sea water (driven by sea level rise and water management) can be inferred from past diatom remains.

Their presence in the layered sediment connects us to the ecosystem in which they thrived while they were alive. Indeed, they are a portal to what once was so that we can better learn how to protect what now is.

A diatom glass shell is a talisman.

The tiniest of talismans– as tiny as a cell: a single-celled organism that lives in the water and harnesses the power of the sun to convert CO2 into organic substances to sustain its life and releasing oxygen in the process. Indeed, the oxygen in one of every third breath we take was returned to the atmosphere by and through diatoms!

Elegant, gem-like, the bilaterally symmetrical shapes of many diatoms move me to depict them in my art. I do so to celebrate the science that shows us their relevance in our world. These are some of the works:

Fig. 4. Xavier Cortada, “Diatom” archival ink on aluminum, 36″ x 18″, 2014 (edition 1 of 5) (©2014 Xavier Cortada).

Diatom Fountain (Fig. 3)

I am currently putting finishing touches on Diatom Fountain. Comprised of 1,616 handmade, hand-painted ceramic tiles, we just need to add water as soon as we get the lights and water pump installed on this sixteen-foot tall public fountain. It is my latest public work, one of several featuring diatoms.

This one is at Miami-Dade Housing Authority’s Smathers Plaza, an elderly living community in Little Havana. Here, four vertical water channels disrupt the natural flow of diatoms across the sculpture, much like dredging and canals have disrupted the flow of the River of Grass across South Florida. I like depicting diatoms in public places as a way of engaging audiences – an entry point for them to learn about how scientists use diatoms to monitor water flow and quality in the Florida Everglades and throughout Florida’s ecosystems.

Fig. 3. Xavier Cortada, “Diatom Fountain” 16’ x 8’ x 8’, ceramic tile, 2017.

Florida Coastal Everglades LTER (Fig. 4)

Using a microscope, I captured the image of a diatom from samples used by scientists working in the FIU-led Florida Coastal Everglades LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) program to study the ecology of the Everglades and sea level rise. In the digital art piece, my first work about diatoms, I had this diatom image hover over a layer of maps (that I captured using Google maps) showing the artificial canals and lakes created to develop parcels of developable land where the River of Grass once flowed.

Fig. 5. Xavier Cortada, “Just Below the Surface: 1915 (The Founding of Miami Beach)” 60” x 36”, archival ink on aluminum, 2015 (©2015 Xavier Cortada).

Miami Beach City Hall (Fig. 5)

To create the Centennial art piece for the City of Miami Beach, I used a diatom as the central image for the digital work. The diatom depicted in the art piece was living on Biscayne Bay in 1915. It was creating the very air Miami Beach founders breathed 100 years ago as they brought the city to life. Its glass shell, all that remains from the diatom, is used by scientists today to see what was as they research environmental issues crucial to the city in the century to come.

Fig. 6. Xavier Cortada, “Florida is… Sunshine (Sunset)” digital art, 2015.

Florida Turnpike (Figs. 6, 7)

I was commissioned to create permanent public art installations in three Florida Turnpike plazas, making them cultural destinations in and of themselves. Wanting to connect tourists and locals to Florida’s true beauty–nature, I portrayed Florida’s life-giving sun, its endangered animals, and native wildflowers. At the Florida Turnpike Turkey Lake Plaza near Orlando, I depicted the Florida’s sun-using and water-bound diatoms that harness its power thus creating oxygen. Conceptually, I wanted to track a day in the life across the Sunshine State:
• Sunrise: Huge diatom-clad sunrays rise above the Northbound entrance (on the east side of the Turkey Lake plaza),
• High Noon: life-giving diatoms appear as circles on the ceiling at the center of the building
at high noon, and
• Sunset: the rays set above the Southbound entrance on the west.”

Fig. 7. Xavier Cortada, “[Florida is… Sunshine (High noon):] Luster” archival ink on aluminum, 20″ diameter, 2015 (©2015 Xavier Cortada).

Cortada first published this article for the FIU Florida Coastal Everglades LTER’s Wading through Research | “Diatom of the Month” Blog in February 2017:

North Pole Dinner Party

On June 29th, 2008, I arrived at the North Pole to create ritualistic installations addressing global climate change and the melting polar caps. One of my performances included a ritual where I fed my fellow icebreaker travelers pieces of ice collected at the North Pole, thereby integrating the North Pole into their very being.

I figured that if they ingested a piece of the North Pole, it would become part of them.  The North Pole water molecules would be swirling through their bodies.  The North Pole atoms would be incorporated into their very cells.  My sense was that after having North Pole communion, they would protect the North Pole.  If nothing else, they would do so for self-preservation.

Xavier Cortada


North Pole Dinner Party/Miami 2008: The Green Project | Claire Oliver Gallery

NorthPoleDinnerPartyAbove: North Pole Dinner Party (Miami Performance, 2008)

On December 3rd, 2008, North Pole Dinner Party participants ingested ice made with water Cortada brought from this trip. This North Pole dinner took place in Miami on ceramic plates the artist made using the melted polar ice.

Xavier Cortada

Title of Artwork:
Ice Plate, North Pole Dinner Party (Miami)

Sea Ice from the Geographic North Pole, pigment and glaze on ceramic plate


Miami 2015: Bakehouse Art Complex

Xavier Cortada performance of North Pole Dinner Party at the Bakehouse Art Complex on August 14, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Fink)


On August 14th, 2015, North Pole Dinner Party participants ingested ice made with water Cortada brought from his North Pole trip. This North Pole dinner took place in Miami using the same ceramic plates the artist made for the 2oo8 performance.


North Pole 2008:

In 2008, Cortada performed the Longitudinal Installation, Endangered World and Native Flags at 90 degrees North.

Cortada at North Pole in 2008


CLIMA: Testamento

Xavier Cortada, "Testamento," archival ink on aluminum, 2015

Xavier Cortada, “Testamento,” archival ink on aluminum, 2015

Testamento was first exhibited in CLIMA, an exhibit hosted by the City of Hialeah during the 2015 Paris Talks.

Here’s what they had to say:



It is remarkable when art is the cause of a fundamental shift in perspective and action.  That is what has happened to those in Hialeah who experienced Xavier Cortada’s CLIMA, an art exhibit highlighting sea-level rise and its effects.
Cortada’s environmental art draws you in by its beauty and brilliance.


In “Testamento,” created for CLIMA, the artist turns documents – the will of a Cuban grandfather and the deed of the Cuban American granddaughter’s Hialeah home – into buildings, engulfed by the sea, words pulled into the waves as a symbol of the sea’s rising power over our lives and our future.  In “Testamento,” Cortada starkly claims that this property will be inaccessible to her own grandchildren, just as her grandfather’s property, seized by the Communist regime, was no longer for her.


Over 1800 people visited the CLIMA exhibit and participated in panels and performance art designed by Cortada to engage our community during the 12 days of the Paris COP21 talks.  Hialeah is not on the coast; however, if sea-levels continue to rise, it will be the one of the most impacted cities in Florida.  Because of Cortada’s exhibit, Hialeah was host to a stream of renowned scientists; community leaders; other artists and musicians; and practitioners from around South Florida whose daily work it is to plan for and protect – to the extent we are able – our properties, our fresh water, and our unique South Florida environment.


Like others, I was transfixed by Cortada’s art, his “5 Action Steps” films, and the memorable performances.  I felt gratitude that these panelists came to Hialeah and shared their expertise and inspired us. I witnessed both opening night, where Mayor Carlos Hernandez and Cortada stood on the grand steps of Milander in the midst of a melting iceberg while city employees mopped up the mess in the performance piece “Melt,” and the last day of the panels, when the signed Mayor’s Climate Action Pledge  was presented, committing the City of Hialeah to participate in the forward-thinking  Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact.


CLIMA inspired us to listen, to learn, and to act.  We have learned that we cannot ignore sea level rise and the realities of its effects on the people, houses, land, animals and water in all of South Florida, not just the beach.

Marla Alpizar
Director, Education and Community Services
City of Hialeah

CLIMA: 5 Action Steps

Xavier Cortada, “Five Actions to Stop Rising Seas: FREEZE IT!,” video sreen shot, 2015. In acknowledgement of the support of the Rauschenberg Residency/Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Xavier Cortada, “Five Actions to Stop Rising Seas: FREEZE IT!,” video screen shot, 2015 (In acknowledgement of the support of the Rauschenberg Residency/Robert Rauschenberg Foundation). The work premiered during CLIMA 2015, a 2015 solo exhibit that featured art, performances and panel discussions on sea level rise and climate change during Art Basel and the Paris Talks. CLIMA 2016 returns to Hialeah in December 2016.

Democracy (Is an action verb)

Xavier Cortada, “Democracy (is an action verb),” chalk on chalkboard, 2017.

At noon, on January 20th, 2017, I led fellow Miamians participating in the performance of “Oath.”  On a Wynwood street, they read the full text of the United States Constitution out loud.  Together, they took the Oath of Citizen.  I then had them speak their favorite clause from the document they had just read into a water-filled glass and stir it.  They drank the words  with the water, incorporating the document into their very being.
As we approach U.S. Constitution Day (on September 18th, 2017), I created “Democracy (is an action verb)” as a gift to my city.   It is an owner’s manual –a path teaching us how to care for the breathing, living document we pledged to preserve, protect and defend on Inauguration Day.
Many Miamians come from countries where democracy and the rule of law has failed or is failing. Growing up here, I always imagined our city’s outstretched arms welcoming them (as tehy did my parents).  Taking them in, bestowing them with gifts of freedom, democracy.   To me, democracy was like sunshine: Gifts we had in abundance. It was a given for all of us.
But, as I grew older and as I’ve seen my nation grow more and more polarized, I’ve realized that its not quite true.  Freedom is not eternal.  Rights can erode. Democracy is difficult, fragile, vulnerable.  Democracy is hard work.  Its not a thing we get by virtue of being American.  But, because we are American, an activity we continuously engage in.
Through my socially engaged practice, I attempt to develop work that helps audiences see themselves as protagonists, problem-solvers. Here, I challenge them to be the change they want to see, to work together to build a more perfect Union.  To animate democracy.
By asking individuals to conjugate democracy as if it were a verb, I ask them to take action to make democracy happen.  And by conjugating the other pronouns, I ask them to engage and also hold all others accountable.
I democracy
You democracy
He/she democracies
We democracy
You democracy
They democracy


— Xavier Cortada


Save the Date
September 18th, 2017
6:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Proscenium Theater at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex
212-260 NE 59th Terrace,
Miami, FL 33137
More info: