If you’ve spent much time in South Texas, you’re likely familiar with painter, graphic designer, sculptor, and printmaker Cruz Ortiz.
His work is everywhere—from Austin galleries and Houston museums, to protest fliers and Beto O’Rourke T-shirts, to pizza boxes and Absolut vodka bottles, and even on a 60-foot tower beside a busy highway leading into San Antonio’s south side.
Or maybe Ortiz’ art just feels like it’s everywhere—a side effect of the pop style as catchy and inescapable as the song lyrics woven into some of his most recognizable pieces.
Even in 2020, during this time of chaos and uncertainty, Ortiz, 48, says he has more clarity and focus in his work than ever before.
But it wasn’t always that way.
The transformation occurred with one big life change—and the decision to massively overhaul his sleep.
Before: Ortiz Burned the Midnight Oil for His Art
“It’s always been in my head that I was going to be an artist,” says Ortiz.
Born in Houston, Ortiz wanted to be an artist from an early age. As a kid, he didn’t just draw on the walls, he crayoned giant illustrations and filled the doors and moldings with color.
In high school, his creative style was further shaped by the vocational classes he was steered into as one of just a handful of students of color in his rural hometown.
“I wanted to take art classes but [my teachers] were like, ‘Well, maybe you should take a how-to-fix-a-lawn-mower class,’” says Ortiz. “What ended up happening is I took welding for four years, and I was a future farmer of America guy, and I ended up loving that kind of stuff.”
While Ortiz’s classmates were learning to weld barbecue pits and gun racks for their trucks, he was falling in love with welding sculptures, and the simple act of building and creating things with his hands.
At San Antonio College, he expanded those interests to print work and began screen-printing T-shirts and posters for his friends’ punk rock bands.
This drive to create continued even after Ortiz graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a bachelor of fine arts degree in printmaking and began teaching art at a San Antonio high school.
Because of his day job, the only time Ortiz had to work on his art was at night. After teaching all day and then spending time with his wife, Olivia, who was also a teacher, and their kids, he would go into his studio around 8 or 9 p.m. and continue working until 2 or 3 in the morning.
He’d then clock a few hours of sleep, get up a 6:30 a.m., and do it all over again.
Ortiz maintained this schedule for 15 years, harnessing a work ethic that he says was instilled into him as a working-class, second-generation Mexican American.
“There’s that culture that if you're not working around the clock, you’re weak and that’s bad,” says Ortiz.
For Ortiz, the hard work seemed to be paying off. He had a full-time job, a burgeoning art career, and a loving and supportive family. But physically he was starting to break down.
He developed a weird eye twitch, and he felt constantly dehydrated and disconnected from his body and health.
“It was really tough” says Ortiz. “Because I was a zombie all day at work, then I’d come back home still a zombie.”
Olivia also became concerned.
“As humans, we know the importance of sleep—that’s when our body regenerates,” she says. “So, I didn’t know how long he could keep [this schedule] up. It was never a source of conflict, but for me as a wife and a mother of five children, I wanted them to have the healthiest version of their father and I wanted myself to have that.”
Now: Ortiz Wakes Up to Renewed Focus
It was clear something had to change, so Olivia and Ortiz left their teaching careers to start a graphic design company and then went to work on creating a new sleep schedule for Ortiz.
On his new sleep schedule, instead of working through the night, Cruz would wake up at 5 a.m. to paint before the kids got up, and then try to shut his brain down for sleep by 10:30 p.m.
At first, Ortiz was skeptical.
“I had this romantic notion that it was at night when dreams come alive,” says Ortiz. “I thought, ‘Is this going to affect my creativity?’”
But after researching the work schedules of other artists, Ortiz learned that greats like Matisse and Van Gogh had painted in the early mornings and maintained tight daily routines, so he gave it a shot.
A new automated coffee maker set to brew at 4:50 a.m. helped ease the transition, as did setting up his easel and paint in the house so all he had to do was sleepily walk from his bed to the kitchen to start working.
It took two weeks for Ortiz to shift from being a sleep-starved zombie to a genuine morning person, but physical and artistic transformation happened even sooner.
“I saw an immediate change in my artwork,” says Ortiz. “Not only just the production, but the amount that was being produced, and the quality. I even had collectors saying, ‘What’s going on?’ It was just more concise work.”
Not only that, Ortiz also noticed a huge pivot in the subject matter of his work. “I started to look at more social, political types of productions or analyzations of how to create work,” says Ortiz. “And then I started to get involved in different methods of painting, like plein air painting outside, doing a portrait series. There was public art. I was working on five different bodies of work at the same time.”
Looking Forward, Well Rested
In many ways, Ortiz has been riding that sleep-fueled productivity train ever since (though today he uses the “Bedtime” feature on his iPhone to make sure he gets eight hours of sleep at night), as he continues to build his “empire of creativity."
Today, that empire includes Burnt Nopal, a creative firm he runs with Olivia; graphic design work; paintings and illustrations in galleries all over the world; and his biggest project, that 60-foot tower just off Interstate 35 in San Antonio.
Known as the “Dream Song Tower,” the twisted metal structure serves as a tribute to Tejano folklore, love songs by Selena, and the hopes and dreams of the local community.
At once romantic and industrial, with blocky bilingual text set against an improvised radio tower design, the massive piece of public art broadcasts the themes that have long served as a throughline in Ortiz’s work.
Those themes speak to the history and politics, people and landscapes of Texas—at a time when everything about the state is in flux.
“Family and our relationship to the land here has always been a huge part of our work,” says Ortiz. “Texas is going into a direction that we've never seen before. I was raised in Houston so I would see rockets go up in space. That's the kind of Texas I think about—of big urban cities, and of big ranches that are now totally teched-out with solar and wind farms.”
Currently, Ortiz is working on a documentary project that involves interviewing and painting recent U.S. immigrants—available in audio form as the En Vivo Portraits podcast on Spotify—as well as researching, writing, and creating new works on the Mexican-American experience in the United States. He still paints every day.
Amid all those projects, Ortiz is also taking time out for something new—naps, which he admits with some embarrassment. “The pandemic has me sleeping more,” he says. “Coming from a Latino working-class family, I have internal guilt about that.”
But, like his prior relationship with his sleep-work schedule, that’s changing too. Spurred on by the pandemic, he’s started to embrace the idea that slowing down is okay, and there’s no shame in self-care.
“It's true,” he says. “Get more sleep, and you're going to live a better life.”
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