‘Art does persuade the heart’: The message Abel Ortiz wants to send with the Uvalde mural project

When Ortiz conceived of the series of murals the day after the school shooting, he decided the project needed to be monumental because “the pain is monumental – and permanent.”

By Jollean Vasquez & Laura RiceMay 16, 2024 11:29 am, , , ,

Abel Ortiz is an associate professor of art at Southwest Texas Junior College. He also owns the ART LAB Contemporary art space in Uvalde.

So as he was watching coverage of the shooting at Robb Elementary in 2022 that killed 19 students and two teachers, he says art was his response.

“The whole idea is born from basically an emotional response,” Ortiz said.

He related the pain he saw in his community to some of his most painful memories – as a brand-new immigrant child attending an American school for the first time.

“So I’m stuck in that first day class. Nobody speaks my language. I don’t understand anybody,” he said. “It was very traumatic. I was crying and kicking every moment of that first day. I remember it like it was the back of my head.”

He said he also never forgot the way art helped him heal.

A close-up photo of Abel Ortiz

“So, Mrs. Wilson, a tough older lady, redhead with a ten-gallon hairdo … she sat me in the corner, not as a punishment, but she gave me pencils and crayons, and I just drew every day,” Ortiz said. “And again, that was genius on her side, because that calmed me down. And I know art has that power to calm – and you start to get into your little world and you start to relieve stress, and that trauma sort of went away.”

He said he decided pretty quickly that the art in response to the shooting needed to be not just one mural, but many.

“I said … this has to be 21 murals across town. And they have to be monumental because the pain is going to be monumental,” Ortiz said. “The pain is monumental and permanent. And so, that’s where it was born.”

He put out a call for artists and said though the team came together quickly, the process was slow.

“I insisted that we waited until the last funeral to approach the families about the project,” Ortiz said.

Still, he said, the support came from everywhere.

A photo of an artist painting a mural in memory of student Jailah Silguero.

“If we had an obstacle, it was somehow taken care of,” Ortiz said. “Like, we didn’t have a lift that weekend. And by circumstance, somebody walks into the restaurant we’re in while the muralists are talking with me or speaking with me, and he’s the one who runs the maintenance department in my college.”

A short conversation and a phone call later, the lift was provided.

Ortiz says now, two years after the shooting, he sees the murals continuing to provide healing.

“That’s evident through the Facebook posts, social media posts that many families post regularly,” he said. “Just most recently … Eva Mireles’ family had their 5K run, and so they used the mural as a starting line and the finishing line.”

He also recalled a post from Alithia Ramirez’s dad stopping to clear his head in front of her mural.

“That’s, to me, the most positive action or statement that I could have,” Ortiz said. “I can tell that the murals are working.”

A collage photo of six of the murals featuring some of the children killed in the shooting.

Some of the murals in Uvalde in memory of children who were killed at the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

He also enjoys that the murals draw visitors to Uvalde. He’s grateful they’re using their dollars to further support the Uvalde community, but he hopes they’re also coming away with a message.

“Some of the people want everybody to move on, but the murals won’t let us forget,” Ortiz said. “That’s the whole idea about murals. We’re not going to forget them. We can remember their names. And this is why they had to be portraits. They couldn’t just be a dove or a butterfly. It had to be a portrait. Because we need to remember their faces, too.”

Ortiz said that’s important because he said it’s a reminder a mass shooting can happen anywhere.

“We can’t keep allowing this to happen across the nation, because these events have become like a cancer,” he said. “And once it becomes a cancer and embedded into the culture, it becomes identifiable with us, just as hot dogs and apple pie.”

He said he’s confident the murals can make a change – even if it takes a while.

“Art works slowly. But art does persuade the heart,” Ortiz said.

A team of students at Texas State University are working with Professor Eraldo “Dino” Chiecchi to continue to tell the stories of Uvalde. Here are their reflections on the project.

A photo of Jollean VasquezJollean Vasquez
Age: 23
Major: Journalism
Hometown: Lockhart, Texas
Graduation: Spring 2025

On my path to becoming a journalist, this was my first time being able to work professionally in the field. This was an amazing opportunity for me and my profession, and I am grateful to the individuals I was able to speak to and interview, allowing their story to live on through my words. I would not have this opportunity if it were not for my professors in my past communication classes, as well as my current professors at Texas State, Amber Hinsley and Eraldo “Dino” Chiecchi. I would like to give thanks to my fellow classmates, friends and family for all their support during this process, as we worked to create our best versions of meaningful literature. I am proud to be considered a part of this project and look forward to the future.

A photo of Eraldo Chiecchi.Eraldo “Dino” Chiecchi, MFA
Texas State University
Multimedia journalism professor
Uvalde reporting project coordinator
Hometown: El Paso, Texas

This is the second time our journalism students visited Uvalde, Texas, to report on this senseless tragedy – the worst days of the lives of so many people. Our students reported these difficult stories on the mass killing of 19 students and two teachers with grace, empathy and with the respect the victims deserved. Parents of the victims commented to me immediately after the interviews and elsewhere just how well prepared the students were to interview them – even more than some national media. As a result, family members were candid telling the stories. Students and I talked a great deal about vicarious trauma – a real thing among journalists and others who deal with tragedy. Students talked at length, especially on the drive back home. We visited Uvalde on two different days and conducted one interview in Austin. At the end of the project, students produced quality journalism – stories, video and audio pieces, and exceptional photography.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.