Immortalized in Glass

April 24, 2004

Image of Florida’s first Catholic bishop now school mosaic

By Joan D. Laguardia

With vibrant color and the metaphor of mangrove, artist Xavier Cortada will revive the memory of Bishop Augustin Verot at the local school that bears his name.

The 8-foot-by-16-foot outdoor glass mural will be unveiled in the school’s courtyard Friday evening. The 450-pound mosaic will be the centerpiece of a showing of work by the Miami-based Cuban-American artist.Thousands of vivid glass tiles have transformed Cortada’s painting of the first Roman Catholic bishop in Florida into a mosaic for Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers.

The gallery showing, cocktail reception and program featuring Cortada will fund scholarships for minority students.

“We are hoping to be able to fund two full scholarships from the proceeds of the evening,” said Todd Cordisco, the school’s director of communications and alumni relations.

Cortada, 39, discovered mangroves while boating with his father, who was also an artist. Since then, Cortada has used the mangrove — a distinctive wetlands tree whose roots gather soil to form islands — as a symbol for community growth.

In Cortada’s portrait, Verot stands in mangroves rising to become his staff and vestments.

Verot was a controversial bishop — a French-born Roman Catholic in the South during the Confederacy and Reconstruction. He defended slavery as an institution, but insisted that slaves were human beings with souls, worthy of legal protection. He warned slave owners that God would punish them for abusing their bondsmen.

After the Civil War, he became an outspoken supporter of civil rights for freed slaves and campaigned especially to educate their children.

“In some ways, he was ahead of his time. In other ways, he was a victim of his time,” Cortada said of his subject. “I see him as a man who made a myriad of mistakes, but I also see him as a man with the courage to stand up for his convictions.”

That was also his first experience with converting his oil painting into glass mosaics. A company in Italy reproduces his art using 10-millimeter glass tiles, called tesserae.Cortada turned to art full-time in July 1997 after he created two 24-foot murals at the Nike Town mega store in Miami.

“I just saw the beauty of it,” he said of the mosaic process. “You don’t want the art to fade or peel or be destroyed through time.”

Corporate, government and and non-profit clients are attracted to Cortada’s bold use of color and ethnic themes.

He has created art for the White House, World Bank, HBO, Heineken and the Global Health Council. He was commissioned in November by Gov. Jeb Bush to paint a mural commemorating Florida’s Hispanic heritage.

Some of Bishop Verot’s 800 students helped research their patron’s life for the project. Cortada also painted vignettes of Verot to surround the mural.

It not only pays tribute to the man, it also promotes discussion in theology and history classes, said the Rev. J. Christian Beretta, principal.

“This is an incredible opportunity for our students to work with a renowned artist who has worked with so many diverse groups across many continents,” Beretta said.

Prints of the mural will be sold during the event.

“We are reaching out, in a deliberative manner, to families in the area that may not be able to afford a Verot education for their children,” Beretta said.

“The symbolic value, even of the mosaic itself, is powerful to me. Just as a mosaic is made up of all these colors, the school is made up of people from different backgrounds,” Beretta said.

The Verot campus, he said, echoes the call of the Gospel by promoting ethnic and economic diversity.

“We most closely resemble God when we are gathered together,” Beretta said.