Milton Rosa-Ortiz: Battling persecution, but beautifully |

Milton Rosa-Ortiz: Battling persecution, but beautifully

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN ” Troubled by the state of heightened intolerance, especially religious intolerance, in the world, Milton Rosa-Ortiz set out to make an art project that would promote understanding and acceptance. Drawings of kids of various colors holding hands underneath rainbows might have made that point. But Rosa-Ortiz, a former Aspen resident, has been inching his way toward the upper ends of the art world since his move to Brooklyn in 1999, so something deeper was required.

Rosa-Ortiz spent a full year researching, covering topics including Greek mythology and topographical geography, recent Hollywood films and the history of religious persecution. Rosa-Ortiz, who has typically worked in sculpture, also experimented with his artistic approach and came up with a medium of his own invention ” relief works made of colored crystals, mounted on pins and stuck to a black background.

The result is a thematically dense, visually stunning series, “The Dodekatheon, according to Milton.” The series ” 12 pieces, each one featuring one the Greek gods from Mount Olympus ” shows at the Baldwin Gallery through July 21.

Rosa-Ortiz didn’t want to merely present the fact of intolerance, but was determined to nudge things in the direction of peaceful relations. He was inspired by a quote by photographer Edward Steichen ” “I believe that in all things that are important, in all of these we are alike!” ” and religious scholar Huston Smith, in particular his belief that understanding leads to respect and love, and that all of these are necessary to “quench the flames of fear, suspicion and prejudice.”

The first element Rosa-Ortiz settled on was the 12 Olympian gods. It connected to his past use of classical canons in his art; his last show at the Baldwin Gallery, in 2005, was titled “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and explored Heironymus Bosch’s conception of the Christian sins. “Those canons from history, they still have some value to us,” said Rosa-Ortiz, a 40-year-old native of Puerto Rico who had been a devout Christian before his “falling out with God.”

He also liked the link between the ancient Olympian gods and the Gods in whose names wars are currently being fought in Iraq, the Middle East, Tibet and other regions. “In some way, [the Greek gods] tap into the universal subconscious,” he said. “In my research, it’s interesting to see how our Gods go back to the Greeks, and even before them.”

Rosa-Ortiz’s idea was to connect each Olympian god to an instance of religious persecution. He acknowledges that this wasn’t always a natural fit. “That took forever,” he said. “Some of them fell into place easily; sometimes it was going over and over and over, till something would click.”

Over the year of researching and conceiving “The Dodekatheon,” there were many of those clicks. One was to attach a particular country to each instance of religious persecution; in each piece, the country is not only depicted, but shown in topographical relief, so that the geographical highlands are indicated with longer pins, and in different colors, than the lowlands, giving the work a textured dimension. Somewhere along the way, it also got into Rosa-Ortiz’s head to add another element, which he calls a “cattle brand,” to each piece.

“I was thinking of it as a scar,” he said of the brands. “Because when you’ve been persecuted, you’ve been scarred, with the damage, psychological or physical, that that does.”

“Hephaestus,” then, depicts the Greek god of technology and craftsmen as the monk who, as captured in a famous AP photograph, lit himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam. The cattle brand is circular, representing the Buddhist concept of the wheel of life.

As Rosa-Ortiz points out, Chronus, the father of Zeus, was told that one of his sons would dethrone him. As a defensive maneuver, Chronus swallowed all his sons except Zeus, whom he hid away. Zeus returned and forced his father to spit out his siblings.

Zeus, the king of the gods and the ruler of Mount Olympus, is associated with the eagle ” which happens to also be a symbol of the U.S.A. So in Rosa-Ortiz’s piece, Zeus is depicted as a bald eagle, representing the U.S. armed forces liberating the Jews from the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II.

“Ares” is an image of a Crusader slashing the throat of a Muslim in 1099, when the Crusaders took the city of Jerusalem and slaughtered virtually every Muslim, as well as many Jews and even Eastern Christians, living there. If the image looks vaguely familiar, it’s because Rosa-Ortiz borrowed it from the 2005 film, “Kingdom of Heaven,” starring Orlando Bloom as a defender of Jerusalem.

And what was Rosa-Ortiz to do about Aphrodite? He kept her as she was, as the goddess of love and understanding. Aphrodite is depicted with no country, no brand, and no strife. She is in the shape of a bowl ” “encompassing everything, everyone,” said Rosa-Ortiz.

Originally, Rosa-Ortiz intended to focus only on contemporary instances of persecution. But as he got into the project, he began to think that such an approach would diminish the scope of his ideas. He wanted to make the subject seem as vast as possible, to make the point that intolerance has been an eternal issue.

“I don’t want it perceived as being about the persecution of Jews, the persecution of Hindus,” he said. “If we step back and look at these 12 pieces and see the persecution of all these groups over all this time, we see it almost as if it were part of our nature. That we all have this in us. That we keep making the same mistakes.

“By seeing ourselves as the oppressed and oppressor, it affords us some perspective, some distance. And that will promote understanding.”

Rosa-Ortiz was so consumed with the thematic underpinnings of “The Dodekatheon,” and the painstaking process of making them ” he glued the crystals to each pin, and each piece contains some 2,500 pins ” that there were certain aspects that he overlooked.

One is the way they sparkle ” especially if you look at them with one eye closed, and slowly walk toward or away from the pieces. The visual effect is magnificent, with just a few specific crystals coming to life.

“I knew they were going to be sparkly,” said Rosa-Ortiz, who worked a series of jobs ” waiter, hot-air balloon operator ” in Aspen, and also earned a degree in architecture at Kansas State before turning to fine art. “But I didn’t know there’d be that much color, that much light.”

That, of course, is only the surface component. But Rosa-Ortiz says if viewers come in, look at the work, and admire the cool visuals, he’ll be satisfied. “If they say, ‘Hey, that’s beautiful’ ” that’s great,” he said. “Some people just want to look and absorb it and see what they see. But if they want to look closer, there are layers there.”

When I saw “The Dodekatheon,” the first thing I was reminded of was stars in the sky ” small, bright points of light arrayed against a black background. (The art, however, trumps Mother Nature by employing a much wider spectrum of colors.) Rosa-Ortiz, though, didn’t originally see them this way. He likened them to coins, or to illuminated manuscripts. Then a friend came into his studio and said they looked like constellations.

“Which I thought was perfect,” said Rosa-Ortiz. “They’re figures made of light that floats in an infinite field of black. Some of them are people and some are animals ” just like constellations.”

I mentioned that everyone I could think of who had gone into space and looked back at the Earth was overwhelmed by the thought of oneness ” of looking down at the planet and thinking that we were all one people, united on this floating sphere. Which circles back perfectly to where Rosa-Ortiz started, with his desire to bring people together.

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