This post originally appeared on the Library as Incubator Project in March 2015.

Today we’re thrilled to present an interview with Erico Ortiz, a creative artist in Wisconsin, who tells us today about his relationship to libraries and a wonderful poetry + visual art project he produced with other poets and artists last year. Enjoy! ~ Laura

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Introduce yourself! Who are you, and what sort of creative work do you do?

Erico Ortiz (EO): My name is Erico Ortiz.  I taught Spanish in the Milwaukee Public Schools for ten years. Eventually, I moved into a supervisory role with the district and became a school administrator. After 33 years in the system, I retired to a life of art-making. I began to paint and found that people were interested in my art. I exhibit throughout Southeastern Wisconsin and am active with the Riverwest Artists Association. 

During my teaching years, I was drama director at my school, producing and directing musicals and straight plays for five years. I directed a dance troupe whose focus was the folk dances of Puerto Rico, Mexico and Spain. I play folk guitar and direct a Spanish church choir.

I am also very active with the Village Playhouse, acting on stage and doing behind-the-scenes work: program design and set construction. Most recently, I purchased an old funeral home and converted it (with the help of over 100 friends and family members!) into an art gallery and theatre performance space.  Inspiration Studios opened its doors on March 1, 2014, and is now home to the Village Playhouse and other theatre companies, producing approximately ten different theatre productions throughout the year. Inspiration Studios has become a vibrant part of the West Allis community in Wisconsin.

LAIP: What is / has been your relationship to libraries – in the past/present, as a reader, an artist, a community member…however you feel like responding to the question.

SVA face 2

Erico Ortiz.

EO: As a college student, I used library resources to research topics for individual papers and for my Master’s thesis.  During some of that time, I was hired to translate technical documents into Spanish for a manufacturing firm whose products were partially created in Mexico.  I found the dictionaries that I never knew existed prior to having that consulting job.  

As a teacher, school librarians helped me to develop packets of materials that students could use to research their projects and to write comprehensive papers.  As a school administrator, I worked closely with the school librarian in various ways.  Together we created budgets to ensure that the library and school was properly equipped with needed resources for use in the classroom and in the library.  We ordered computers and SmartBoards, laptops and software.  We created presentations for staff on the usefulness of a lot of the technology available to them.  New teacher orientations, which I coordinated, always included a tour of the library and presentation by the librarian to orient the new teachers on how the library could help them to prepare for units of study.  

LAIP: Tell us about your book project, Making It Speak: Poets & Artists in Cahoots! How did this project come to be? What was the inspiration for the project? 

EO: As the Coordinator of the Final Friday events of the Sheboygan Visual Artists, I attended a poetry reading of the Mead Library Poetry Circle at EBCO (home to the SVA), in Sheboygan the summer of 2013.  During that event, I was asked about the possibility of creating an event where artists and poets would collaborate on an art exhibit that would also function as a poetry reading.  Working with two representatives from the Mead Library Poetry Circle (Marilyn Windau and Georgia Ressmeyer), we decided it would be interesting to have artists create new art based on poems that were supplied to them and also have poets create new writings based on previous artworks of the SVA.  

cover art FINAL

Poets and Artists were asked to indicate their interest in the project.  They would each receive an envelope, assigned randomly, with 3 pieces of paper.  Each envelope given to the artist contained 3 poems by a poet.  Each of the envelopes given to the poets contained 3 works of art.  All participants were instructed to select only one piece to serve as inspiration for their new creation.  The envelopes were distributed in November of 2013 to sixteen poets and seventeen artists who accepted the challenge.  They had several months to complete their new works and the final reveal of the new and inspirational pieces would take place on March 31, 2014, as the Sheboygan Visual Artists Final Friday event for March.  The new poems were printed, matted and hung alongside the artwork that inspired them.  The new works of art were hung alongside the poems that inspired their creation.  

The evening of March 31 was filled with art and poetry and music and snacks.  Poets read their poems (old and new) as the artists stood by the displayed counterparts.  Participants shared the struggles and achievements of addressing each others’ work with integrity and creativity.

I had offered to create a book to commemorate this collaborative art event.  Originally, I hoped to have the book available at the March Final Friday, but it took a while to get quality photos of all the art.  So the final book wasn’t published until October 2014.  

LAIP: From your perspective, how can libraries enhance their support of creative artists and their work?

EO: Occasionally, I see that a library has art on display to coincide with a specific theme (e.g., Black History month).  I would like that to be a regular practice and not only featuring established artists, but also local and emerging artists.  Artwalks and Gallery Nights are becoming a norm in Milwaukee, but I don’t know that libraries are open during those events.  I believe there would be some mutual benefit by opening their doors to local artists during such events, allowing them to display their works during these extended days.  I also think the library halls or entrance lobbies would make for great display areas for extended exhibits.  It might take a bit more coordination as the librarian or administrator becomes a curator of sorts, but I can imagine all sorts of possible collaborations if there were local artists displaying in the libraries. 

LAIP: As an artist, what would your ideal library look or be like? What would it have in it?

Mead Library Poetry Circle.

Mead Library Poetry Circle.

EO: Maybe it defies the definition of a library, but I would love to see a creative center housed in each library… a place where students can explore art and poetry and other mediums by creating it themselves.  Maybe a library becomes defined as a creative center.  Maybe it becomes an outlet for children (and adults!) to put their creative energy to work.  

Interested in snagging your own copy of Making It Speak: Poets and Artists in Cahoots? Click to view the book on Amazon.

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