Cruz and Olivia Ortiz, the artistic team behind Burnt Nopal creative studio, are moving to Houston.
Longtime San Antonians, the married couple has been deeply embedded in San Antonio arts culture for more than two decades. Cruz Ortiz worked with Inner City Development and taught art for 15 years at the Healy Murphy Center and Lee High School, also helping to establish San Anto Cultural Arts and its highly visible mural program. He and Olivia met at Lee, where she taught English, and together they opened Snake Hawk Press in 2014, which evolved into Burnt Nopal in 2019 to focus on social justice and progressive advocacy.
Burnt Nopal will continue operations at its San Antonio home base on Zapata Street, while the couple will lead the new Houston expansion in the Segundo Barrio neighborhood.
“We’re pleased with our model, which is social entrepreneurship,” said Olivia, who majored in political science at the University of the Incarnate Word. “It’s something that called to both of us. … So it’s just always been in the fiber of both of us before even meeting.”
Snake Hawk Press worked well, she said, but sometimes leaned on Latino kitsch standards like barbacoa, tacos, and celebrities. “The gimmicky stuff was to give us the platform, which is partly the reason that we rebranded. … We were at the beginning of that arc, of Latino merchandising, and [Cruz] laughs at my example, but I always want to be Madonna. I want to be evolving all the time.”
Burnt Nopal brings more substance to the table, Olivia said, with a concept based on understanding how contemporary art can be used for thoughtful design. Most recently, Burnt Nopal designed presidential campaign materials for Julián Castro and the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Festival.
Another major reason for the relocation, Olivia said, is their 11-year-old daughter Graciela, who suffers from Rett syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. A treatment center at Texas Children’s Hospital is dedicated to the disorder and at the forefront of treatment. “That’s gonna be amazing” for Graciela, Cruz said.
Houston was not necessarily their first choice for relocation. They considered Los Angeles, New York City, Mexico City, El Paso, Marfa, and Denver, also well-regarded as a Rett syndrome treatment center, before deciding on Houston. El Paso was high on the list, Cruz said, but even having access to direct flights to more cities can make a major difference in a career that depends so much on travel.
Like San Antonio, Cruz said, “I think of El Paso as amazing as far as inspiration, but we need a lot more than that to actually sustain a career, to be able to have access to a collector base.” Cruz is represented by the Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art gallery in Houston.
Olivia is a San Antonio native, while Cruz was born in The Heights neighborhood of Houston, attended high school in El Paso, then moved to Universal City with his family. His focus on community work began when he moved to the West Side of San Antonio in the early 1990s. “It was in the middle of the gang warfare. I mean, it was brutal.” Gunshots were heard frequently, with even middle schools and community centers in the crossfire.
“And then the next morning, you would hear about children who died, or family members who died. And we were in the middle of all that painting murals,” he said. “I think that solidified my career, in the sense of always understanding the effect of art and how that can help save the world.”
Though he gained wider notoriety in San Antonio, which he credits to his 2005 Artpace residency, Cruz said he considers himself a “Texas-based artist” rather than a San Antonio artist.
The Ortizes will remain as board members for the various organizations they serve, including Artpace, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Planned Parenthood of South Texas, and Eva’s Heroes.
“This is my home,” Olivia said. “This is where all [Cruz’s] children were born. So San Antonio will always have that special place in our hearts.”
When they began to seriously discuss moving, “I was insistent that we’d be here every Fiesta. We’re gonna be those people, that rent a place overlooking La Villita for a week,” she said.
A major part of the Cruz Ortiz legacy also will remain in San Antonio. An archive of more than 300 articles including prints, sketches, photographs, and writings, has been acquired by the University of Texas at San Antonio Special Collections. Cruz is a UTSA alum.
Prominent Cruz Ortiz public sculptures also have gone up recently on the South and West sides, namely the 60-foot Dream Song Tower at Zarzamora Street and Interstate 35, and the Frank Tejeda Jr. memorial Sun Mountain at Brooks. A portrait of longtime San Antonio artist Jesse Amado currently hangs in the Waking Dream exhibition at Ruby City.
Despite being deeply embedded in the fabric of San Antonio visual arts for so long, he and Olivia said they welcome the move in part because of Cruz’s artistic goals.
“When I started making art,” he said, “I knew that from the get go, I’m not making it just for myself, or for my neighbor. The whole point, the decisions earlier, were about making work, for everybody to be able to see.”