By Karina Pavone
With a recorder in hand and legal pad tucked under my arm, I made my way up the steps of a modest Miami home to interview Xavier Cortada. Xavier and I had spoken on the phone and I had already sampled a little bit about his work from the information packet he had sent me in the mail a couple of weeks before, so I felt very prepared for the meeting. When I read the information he sent me, one of the things that struck me was that although he is an artist, he happens to have a law degree from the University of Miami Law School. As you can imagine, possessed by my preconceived notions, I automatically thought “he’s a lawyer.” So, as I walked through the door of his home I carried heavily over my shoulder all the expectations that go along with the stereotype. Boy was I in for a surprise! As the door was slowly swung open, I was greeted by Xavier and his lovable canine companion. As soon as I stepped into this comfortably-furnished, spacious abode, I noticed the sleek wooden floors and the walls lined with fascinating paintings, and I was intrigued by sever African, wooden statues placed selectively around the perimeter of the living room and den. This was not the typical, conservative habitation environment of the lawyer I had pictured in my head on the way over. After brief introductions, Xavier asked me if I would like a tour of his home studio. I was so overwhelmed that with Pavlovian certainty, I nodded a yes.
He showed me his cozy studio and an underground work and storage area where he keeps frames and supplies. He then displayed several paintings and slides and answered all my questions as he patiently explained the theme of each one. Although I had made up my mind, long before I arranged this interview, that the article would focus on Xavier the artist, I still had Xavier the lawyer lurking in the back of my mind. After seeing his work and hearing the enthusiasm in his voice as he spoke about it, I was truly impressed and I became aware at that point that Xavier the lawyer was an alter ego that was practically nonexistent. The degree is just a piece of paper hung on a wall and his essence does not come from the prestige or status that it offers, but from his innate ability to tap into the heart of human existence through art.
Shortly after the tour, we sat down in the living room and I began the Q and A. He began relating a fascinating tale about an impressionable young boy who watched attentively as his father painted. “I was an art critic before I was an artist,” he said, inhaling, his voice dropping as he recalled with fondness, “I used to tell my father ‘You need more yellow here, more red there. . .’” After his interest sparked, his passion grew and he began to paint. However, the advent of his high school years forced his talent to lie patiently dormant. During college, he took a couple of art courses, but ironically, he chose to keep one foot in academia and the other in art by deciding to pursue a law degree. Oddly enough, it was the period during which he put aside his artistic ability, namely his high school years, that influenced his decision to pursue law in the first place. “There were a lot of kids that I went to Miami High with in the early 80s that were in a very negative predicament and I somehow rose above it. . . I’m like this kid that wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and I felt like I had an obligation to give back. So, the way I was gonna do it, the vehicle I was gonna use was law.” He wasn’t immune to the pressures of society, and he was “forced to be, at least in my mind, this civic leader type that needed to fit into a sort of social peg.”
Even though he went that route, two years ago he struggled with the seemingly universal existential issues that many of us have or will confront. In trying to find out who we are and what our purpose in life is, we might discover that we are in better karmic shape than we thought. And perhaps, that in and of itself, will bring us closer to answering those existential questions. Such is the case with this local artist, who found out that art cam sometimes wield as much influence as a law. “I look at my role in this world as trying to make a difference, trying to change the world. Initially, I used law as a mechanism, to do that. . .” Consequently, he left a profession of tender egos and polemical relationships on the back burner, and decided to concentrate on developing his innate talent, which he uses to slap[ the quiet rage of urban streets in society’s face. “Every painting I showed you had a different social message. . . like a speech a lawyer would make in front of a jury.”
Xavier starts his paintings with primary colors and draws from several different styles or artistic movements to create his paintings. In one particular painting, you might find elements of cubism, surrealism, and impressionism, all harmoniously blended together so that only the most skilled art reviewer can pick up on it. Also, he has been experimenting with a unusual but titillating technique. He takes black and white photographs, sticks them on sections of the canvas, and then creates a painting around the photograph, taking advantage of the scenes and perspective it offers so that it becomes part of the painting. Amazing! This break from tradition is what makes his work so unique. In fact, breaking with tradition is Xavier’s hallmark. “I don’t see myself as a traditional anything,” he laughs, “I’m not a traditional artist and I’m not a traditional lawyer. I’m a traditional Xavier Cortada. . . .”
Although Xavier’s work can be admired for its artistic value, it can also be admired for its content or theme. Most of the paintings deal with social problems including drugs, racism, violence, politics, etc. This approach has afforded him much visibility in the community and consequently, the power to change people’s point of view. But it doesn’t stop there. Aside from his paintings on canvas, he has teamed up with different organizations to create numerous murals depicting powerful social messages. He has completed these murals with kids, in an effort to engage them in something positive where they can channel their energy creating a visible reminder of society’s struggles. These reminders leave a truly lasting impression and serve to motivate people to take action. This is admirable, but just like me, you might be wondering what the flipside to all this goodwill is. Could someone really make a living through art? Having had a painting that recently sold for $4,000.00, Xavier’s motto is “Be true to yourself, and the people will come.” “One thing I am very proud of is that I’m not concerned about commercial success as much as I am about using art as a way of conveying my message. I would be more honored to have one of my paintings hang in a museum than to have it hang in a gallery for sale,” he stated with conviction.
One thing is for sure. Regardless of the monetary compensation that his art may yield, there is definitely an intrinsic benefit involved. His recent participation in creating the mural for the Health Crisis Network during the AIDSWALK of Miami was one such rewarding experience. He recalled seeing an individual literally writing goodbye letters to his family and friends and placing them on the mural. This was a very moving experience for him. Also, he recalled going to Colombia to produce a mural with some children, whom wanted the mural to carry an anti-drug message of peace. He never got to complete this project, because as soon as word got out about its content, he was advised to leave because his life was in danger. He believes that the fact that the mural was never painted speaks louder than anything they could have created. The children wanted peace, and they didn’t even get the chance to voice their request! These brief brushes with greatness could never have prepared him for the project with the Lighthouse for the Blind. He was summoned by this organization to teach blind children about art and to paint a mural with them. Of course, he was surprised by such a request. How could he teach blind children about painting? Well he managed single-handedly to do so by using simple analogies that they could understand. Although this was a very challenging experience, its rewards far surpassed those of any of his other projects.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Xavier Cortada is an artist, and he uses his skills to convey a message, to communicate. “After going through law school, after going through the masters, I found that art is a more profound way of leaving amore lasting impression. . . Words evaporate, but art is lasting. . . Art is what makes us human. The ability for us to interact through art transcends whatever barriers we create. . . Art is about expression, it is a tool. Oscar Wilde said, ‘In the end, art is the only thing that is serious, and artists are the ones who take themselves the least seriously.’”