Artist’s brush brings court cases to canvas

Florida Bar News

March 15, 2004

Lawyer Xavier Cortada creates an exhibit specifically for the Supreme Court

By Jan Pudlow
Associate Editor

Xavier Cortada calls his solo exhibit of spirited paintings, “May It Please the Court.”

“And I hope it does,” added this gregarious Cuban-American from Miami, who does pro bono work on children’s issues as a lawyer but makes his living splashing bold colors on canvas with a social activist’s zeal. 

Mission accomplished. 

Plenty of praise poured from several justices during the March 1 opening reception at the Florida Supreme Court, as they gazed at dramatic depictions of six well-known Florida cases that sprang to life with potent symbolism. 

“I am just amazed by the power of some of these paintings,” said Justice Barbara Pariente. “And I am just overwhelmed that Xavier would have created these paintings just for this exhibit.”

Evidence of the artist’s frantic deadline for the exhibit’s opening day was the still-wet oil on the painting “The Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo,” accompanied with the words “Extra, extra. Read all about it: Freedom of expression includes freedom of opinion.”

There was plenty of free expression in 39-year-old Cortada’s efforts to capture the meaning of landmark Florida cases dealing with everything from freedom of religion in “Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah” to states rights in “Seminole Tribe v. Florida.” 

Cortada’s favorite piece created specifically for this exhibit was suggested by Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead: “Gideon v. Wainwright — Because Gideon decided to write from his cell, others were guaranteed a right to counsel before being sent to theirs.”

“There are a million ways I could have described Gideon,” Cortada said, standing before the 4-foot-by-3-foot oil on canvas with passionate gestures at the small figure of Gideon, dwarfed by the cold steel bars of his cell, writing on a long roll of toilet paper. 

“I read this Robert Kennedy quote about Gideon taking charge and changing the course of history. Gideon could have literally done what his cell mate is doing, just sitting back and rotting away in jail. He could have used that paper as toilet paper. Instead, what Gideon decided to do is act,” Cortada explained.

“Even in the most isolated, remote place, he said, ‘I am going to challenge.’ For someone who is marginalized to that level: You’re sitting in jail; you’re a homeless guy, a roamer, a drifter, no money, no nothing, no power. And you can single-handedly, on toilet paper (even though I’m taking creative license. I’m sure it was real paper) change the course of history. I think it speaks volumes for what we as a society can do. And that’s what I am trying to do through this exhibit.”

Cortada is known around the world for using his art as advocacy for social issues, commissioned to create murals for The White House, The World Bank, Global Health Council, and the International AIDS Conferences (XII & XIII).

“I care passionately about the law,” said Cortada, a 1992 University of Miami School of Law graduate. “Going to law school informed my career as an artist, which is why I paint these things instead of landscapes and flowers. I use art as a tool for advocacy.”

That is strikingly apparent in his acrylic-on-canvas triptych titled, “All are equal (1), but some are more equal than others (2),” created in 2002 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Dade County Human Rights Ordinance by the Dade County Commission. 

“The point I am trying to make is that when there is one insular minority, when there is one group of citizens targeted or in any way diminished, all of us as human beings are diminished. And our society becomes less free. When our society is less free, every single one of us is less free,” Cortada said. 

“This piece is timely, and it is about me. As an openly gay man, I am really concerned about what our society is doing, particularly today, and how easy it is to marginalize people. It is done to gays today, as it was done to African-Americans. . . . It is the civil rights issue of our time. So it is important to me for this piece to be here. Hopefully, it will open some minds.”

He stood before that mural with his Cuban-born father, Carlos Cortada, who fled to Miami 42 years ago. “I am proud of my son, and I think I have very good reason to be,” Carlos Cortada said. “I am a painter, too.”

He recalled how he would paint at night, and his young son would dabble with the paints, too, and say, “Dad, take a little longer.” The father would admonish, “You have to go to sleep now!” And the boy would beg: “Just a little longer!”

That childhood passion for painting came in handy when Xavier Cortada was in Soweto, South Africa, five months after apartheid was lifted. He was a faculty member sent by the State Department to teach homeless children.

“The kids couldn’t communicate with me, and I couldn’t communicate with them. I was wearing a tie, because I was very professional. Who am I? So I started doing what my father taught me, which is sketching and drawing. And that’s what they did. Before you knew it, there was this powerful communication going on back and forth. And I realized, oh my God!, what a powerful, powerful language. And if you look at the two paintings downstairs, of kids in adult prison and in the psychiatric hospital (“Convictim,” and “The Voice Project 2003 Mural” with youth at the Jackson Memorial Hospital SIPP residential program), it’s that same thread. I used art as a vehicle to have these kids open up and express themselves in ways that they would not otherwise.”

It was Justice Raoul Cantero who nominated the work of Cortada for this latest Arts in the Court exhibit that invites the public to step inside the marbled high court and climb the stairs to the rotunda-turned-gallery.

“I am very proud to have the opportunity to have Xavier, who clerked for me, and also a Cuban-American from Miami displaying his paintings here,” Justice Cantero said. 

Justice Peggy Quince, studying the symbolism in the paintings with legal intern Paul Ghiotto, exclaimed: “I love having art in the court. This is an especially good exhibit, because it’s about the legal profession. Many of these are about cases that were actually decided here.”

Tallahassee lawyer Katrice Jenkins said she was particularly struck by “Proffitt v Florida,” an important Florida death penalty case. The accompanying words said: “Capital punishment formula: 7M + 8A= 0 (CU); M=mitigating, A=aggravating, CU=cruel and unusual.”

“It really brings the cases to life,” she said. “Proffitt, for instance, that was a really great one, the depiction of mitigating and aggravating factors. Overall, I think this is magnificent. Yes, it is truly amazing. It really does bring all of the things you’ve read about —yeow! —right in your face!”

As Cortada explained that painting: “It has Francis Bacon written all over it. He has a piece about a pope sitting in a chair and it looks very electric. It’s almost ridiculous: 7 mitigating + 8 aggravating = CU. That’s how we create a formula. It’s the same way with kids in adult prison. You can almost absolve whatever irrationality by using formulas,” he said, adding the formula de-emotionalizes the death penalty so that it can be carried out.

“To me, it is a fantastic painting. There is nothing more fantastic than the death penalty. If it’s shocking, and if it’s loud, and if it’s brash, then it needs to be here. Because what happens in this room is loud and brash, and it needs to be addressed.”

The last time Cortada was at the Supreme Court, he said, he only had 60 seconds to address the justices in oral argument.

“Now I have more time to articulate with the justices in a way that is more lasting. Using art, I allow the audience to draw their own conclusions, instead of me to advocate my point of view. As an attorney, to have my art at the Supreme Court is a particularly huge honor.”

“May it Please the Court” exhibit at the Florida Supreme Court runs through July 15. To commemorate Law Day, four additional pieces will be brought to Tallahassee by May 1, including “Bush v. Gore.” For more information, visit www.cortada.com.

Xavier Cortada, right, with his father, Carlos Cortada.