The Biscayne Times

Aug 17th
Second Nature PDF Print E-mail
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
September 2017

Xavier Cortada’s art celebrates the endangered world around us

TPix_GoingGreen_9-17he rhythm of life pulsing, moving, singing all around us is mostly lost in the built environment. That’s a problem Miami-based artist Xavier Cortada wants to solve.

“We forget we’re living in the Everglades,” says Cortada, “that we live in a place that dances.”

Cortada is on a mission to bring back that rhythm by infusing everything he can with nature -- grimy highway underpasses, sleek airport terminals, stark public housing courtyards. Over the years, all have been graced with Cortada’s depictions of panthers, turtles, butterflies, and mangroves. Especially mangroves.

In 2004, mangrove seedlings in cups started appearing around Miami, affixed like vertical gardens to the walls and windows of public buildings and storefronts.

That was Cortada at work, intent on bringing a lost world back to life.

“The seedlings were distributed to remind people on Lincoln Road that South Beach was carved from a mangrove forest,” he says. “When I handed them out, I would say, ‘It is your responsibility to water them, or they will die.’”

Schoolchildren and volunteers planted the seedlings on Virginia Key and in the Bear Cut Nature Preserve in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, where today they form a living artwork, dancing in the waves. Mangroves can’t be cut down or trimmed without permits. This special status reflects their increasingly important role in protecting coastal lands from flooding by slowing the flow of water and breaking up waves. Communities like Miami Beach that cut down their mangroves in the past are scrambling to replant them now, in the hope that the “green infrastructure” will protect them from climate change impacts.

To accomplish his goal of teaching people to appreciate the natural environment, Cortada says they must see it before they come to care for it. This has become increasingly more difficult in urban areas.

His newest exhibit is titled “Florida is…” and opens September 13 at Pinecrest Gardens, where he’s artist-in-residence. The exhibit, which aims to encourage a reconnection with the natural world, runs through October 8. Like all of Cortada’s work, it has a collaborative component: the public can submit their art of what “Florida is” to them through the exhibit website ( Cortada says he hopes that sharing will help people make a connection and inspire them to take greater responsibility.

“I want people to walk around their communities and take notice of nature, to understand its inherent value,” he explains. “I want people to discover Florida, not as skyscrapers and roads and airports, but to think of Florida as the very nature of it.”

This is something he tackled in 2015, when he was asked to design art for the new Florida Turnpike service plazas. The turnpike is a well-worn path to the entertainment “parks” of Orlando. For Cortada, art offered an opportunity to make people see what they were missing as they traveled “Florida’s Main Street.”

“I decided to focus on the animals no longer on these paths,” he says. This included endangered animals surviving in habitats now crisscrossed by roads and subdivisions.

At the entrance to the Fort Drum service plaza near Yeehaw Junction, there’s a mural of the beleaguered Florida panther, of which some 200 survive in the wild. The plaza’s interior art focuses on 12 other endangered species, from the Miami blue butterfly, once thought extinct but now re-emerging in the Florida Keys, to Key deer, gopher tortoises, and the Florida red wolf, one of the world’s most endangered canids.

“Florida is…” celebrates all these lost and lonely species.

Cortada’s Mangrove Reclamation Project and the “Florida Is…” exhibit are just two of his many eco-art, collaborative ventures over the years that celebrate and work to save a city he dearly loves. He has traveled to the North and South Poles to bring attention to the dangers of climate change; he has collaborated with scientists worldwide to call attention to the extinction of species; and he has discussed climate displacement with grandmothers in Hialeah.

“Growing up in Miami, my Florida was Biscayne Bay,” he recalls. “It was the mangrove forests at the water’s edge.” The connection he made with the natural world through mangroves as a child still drives him. In fact, if Cortada could name a state tree, it would be the mangrove.

In 2006, when Cortada was commissioned to create a Florida Heritage Month poster, he chose mangroves. The waves lapping on the shoreline of the Five Flags/Florida piece from that exhibition represent new waves of immigrants who put down roots and settled the state, a flowering land in which we’re all interconnected, like the roots of the mangrove trees.

And those South Beach mangrove seedlings? They have weaved an entire ecosystem in Miami by now, their life nurturing so many others. Someday they may save us back, serving as anchors amid rising seas, holding and breaking up the storm surge before it breaks us.


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