Alumnus engages with community as exhibitions coordinator

A 2011 printmaking alumnus moved from Puerto Rico to earn a masters degree.

José Ortiz-Pagán, a 2011 master’s printmaking alumnus, sits in the Fleisher Art Memorial, where he currently is an exhibitions coordinator. WENDY VAN FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

The first advice José Ortiz-Pagán was given when he moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico was “give yourself three months … you’re going to hate it.”

“The first three months you’re going to hate Philadelphia and after the fourth month, you’re going to start loving it,” the 2011 master’s printmaking alumnus said.

“Whenever I had a chance to go back to Puerto Rico … I just went as fast as I could for December vacation, but then when I was in Puerto Rico I started to miss Philly,” Ortiz-Pagán said.

Originally from the small industrial town of Guayama, Puerto Rico, Ortiz-Pagán moved without his family to Philadelphia in 2009 to attend the Tyler School of Art, despite his original interest in an art school in Chicago.

“At the time I didn’t know much about the Tyler School of Art and I went to [an art] fair to meet another school, which turned out to be disappointing,” Ortiz-Pagán said. “As I was walking out something told me to check this school out because many people seemed to like it.”

He received a bachelor’s degree in printmaking from University of Puerto Rico.

It was the art program and the Temple’s campus in Rome, which he attended his senior year, that convinced Ortiz-Pagán to come to Temple.

Currently, Ortiz-Pagán is the exhibitions coordinator at Fleisher Art Memorial, an arts organization that offers free workshops near Washington Square West, and working with the community to develop other exhibition programs. He organizes lectures and exhibitions in which the community determines the topic, like the “Day of the Dead.”

On Nov. 1, Fleisher Art Memorial will have its fourth “Day of the Dead” celebration, which was created with the help of the community and the committee “Calaca Flaca (Skinny Skeleton).” Last month, Ortiz-Pagán’s work was exhibited at the Latin American art gallery, RACSO Fine Arts. The collection was inspired by his political roots and activist character.

“I’m still an activist for immigrant rights and one of the flags that caught my attention was the one with the Benjamin Franklin print of the snake cut into pieces, ‘Join or Die,’ Ortiz-Pagán said. “For me, it was just an excuse to take it out of context and talk about colonialism and depression … It’s this snake cut into pieces, which made me interested in the concept of cutting a body in order to send a political message.”

At 14 years old, he became interested in mediums like graffiti and skateboard art. During his youth, he would accompany his parents to the factories in Puerto Rico where they worked.

Ortiz-Pagán said the factories seemed almost like “lifeless environments” for his parents and family members. This would become the inspiration behind his work.      

“A lot of my work has to do with postcolonialism and rust. … It’s like the artwork performs itself. … It’s moving all the time. … It’s dying,” Ortiz-Pagán said.

“Rust relates to the structures I saw as a kid and using rust comes from the idea of using an aesthetic in my art work that anyone could read no matter where they came from … and rust gives you that,” Ortiz-Pagán said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from because when you see something rusting down and falling apart, you know that it was a message that it didn’t work, it’s dying.”

Through his years at Tyler, Ortiz-Pagán said he had many faculty members that helped him grow as an artist, like Gerard Brown, the chair of the foundation department at the school.

Brown said Ortiz-Pagán’s work is intense, due to his strong attention to detail.

“At the time, he was making these woodcuts that were really just astonishing,” Brown said.

Although his artwork is inspired by postcolonialism, Ortiz-Pagán said he wants his artwork to mean more than just a political message. He said he wants to convey a message that involves hope in achieving personal dreams.

“We can be whatever we want and … if you believe in that, I would like to believe the universe arranges itself in a way that supports what you want to do,” Ortiz-Pagán said. “I hope people do see the political issues through my work, but also that whatever you want to do in life is possible … and a lot of the messages seem to be negative when you look at my work, but it comes from that aspect of being very optimistic of the future.”

Lillian Lema can be reached at

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