Artist Xavier Cortada’s newest work is a statement on sea level rise

Xavier Cortada expressed his feelings on sea level rise through a public art display in Pinecrest. Photograph by Nick Garcia.

Xavier Cortada experienced his first meltdown in Antarctica more than 12 years ago.

The Miami artist traveled there in 2006 with the National Science Foundation, where he witnessed firsthand the effects climate change was having on glaciers. While there, he created a series of works on paper, Antarctic Ice Paintings, using as his medium glacier and sea ice along with sediment samples given to him by the scientists working there.

For Cortada, who studied law at the University of Miami, the road to promoting climate change awareness has been a winding one, paved with events that honed his problem-solving skills. He was a community organizer in Little Havana, founded a local rehab center with a Jesuit priest, created programs for violent and delinquent juveniles, and was sent to Latin America and Africa as a professor, among other stints.

‘It’s not just a painting on a wall; it’s a statement.’

“Along the way I started using art to communicate ideas,” he said. “Making murals with street children in Bolivia, at AIDS conferences in Geneva, I was always using art as a way of amplifying people’s voices.”

Xavier Cortada Pinecrest sea level rise
Xavier Cortada. Photograph by Nick Garcia.INDULGE

Sea Level Rise is a Threat to Miami

All of those experiences have had a tremendous effect on his life and his work, but perhaps none more so than the Antarctica sojourn. “The ice I used to make my paintings is the very ice that threatens to drown my city — Miami — in the future,” Cortada said.

If anything is to be done to avert that scenario, Cortada knows, it has to be done now. For his part, he’s starting with his exhibit titled Antarctic Ice Paintings: Global Coastlines and Underwater HOA, which runs through January 13 in the Hibiscus Gallery at Pinecrest Gardens, where Cortada is the artist in residence.

But for him, it’s not enough to just show the paintings, which also represent 60 other coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels. He’s enlisting 6,000 of his Pinecrest neighbors to participate in the call to arms.

xavier cortada sea level rise
A marker from Xavier Cortada’s project.

Xavier Cortada Makes Work to Engage the Community

“I wanted to do a public art piece during Art Basel, so people who are driving through can begin to understand the natural topography of this place,” he explained. “Pinecrest starts low at the bay, then rises, then recedes again, so some parts are high and some are low. I suggested we paint the elevation numbers in a decorative way and put them in front of people’s homes. This makes it truly participatory and engages the community. It’s not just a painting on a wall; it’s a statement.”

And a public cleansing. When he first floated the idea to various homeowners, he was met more than once with concern about revealing the elevation of the house and the effect it might have if the owner ever wanted to sell.

“That kind of self-centeredness disrupts the community,” he said, pointing out that once a home is for sale, the survey is made available to the buyer anyway. “We need to be proactive. I want us to be in training now.”

An Ongoing Commitment 

To that end, the project won’t end when the exhibit does. The markers, numbered 0 to 17 to represent the varying elevations and how high water will have to rise before the house is under water, will be on display from December 2-9. Then, in January, a newly formed Underwater Homeowners Association will hold its inaugural meeting, where officers will be elected and by-laws will be formalized.

“Art Basel is very much about consumption,” Cortada says. “What I’m trying to do is address issues of our time and try to solve them. I can’t think of a more appropriate response I could make to sea level rise than to involve the very people who are most vulnerable.”

More: Our guide to the best of coastal and inland New England

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