Gabriela Ortiz in her studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

After 22 years as a management executive for international companies such as General Electric and Carrier, Beechview resident Gabriela Ortiz decided to build an entirely new career based on a new passion — making life more beautiful one painting at a time.

That was in early 2021, and she’s thrilled with her transformation from a “numbers-oriented businesswoman” to a successful visual artist.

The Mexico City native recalls taking a few general drawing classes as a child, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she had a public exhibit of her own artwork. Until then, she says, “I was all about the numbers; I wanted to be in business. I didn’t think you could be a ‘creative’ and a successful business person both.”

A job transfer brought her to Pittsburgh on February 2, 2009, the day after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. 

“The energy of the city was incredible. I knew I wanted to be here, and it’s where I’ve blossomed as a person and an artist.”

NEXTpittsburgh talked to Ortiz about achieving a more balanced life through creative outlets as she put the final touches on her upcoming Golden Lil’ Treasures show. It opens at Spinning Plate Gallery, at 5821 Baum Blvd. in Friendship on Saturday, Nov. 12, and runs through Nov. 30.

Gabriela Ortiz holds one of her large paintings.
Gabriela Ortiz at Spinning Plate Gallery. Photo courtesy of the artist.

NEXTpittsburgh: Can you describe your basic approach to making a painting?

Gabriela Ortiz: The colors come from the little towns of Mexico that I love. The buildings are always pastel or bright colors. The colors of the traditional clothing of the indigenous women are super-bright. They use a lot of neon colors in their textiles. 

In my painting, I typically start with a pretty neon color that forms the background. For me, color is just happy. And living in Pittsburgh with such long winter months, I find I really want to paint colorful things! I am also a super fan of Fauvism.

NEXTpittsburgh: That’s the early 1900s French painting style that emphasized strong colors and intense brushwork. 

Ortiz: Yes, artists like Henri Matisse or Raoul Dufy or the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. My first love is portraiture. I started doing images of women, and I made the skin tones in multiple colors. People responded really well. It’s abstract but presentational — and very influenced by my culture.

NEXTpittsburgh: The Mexican culture you grew up with?

Ortiz: I grew up in Mexico City, and it’s pretty fast-paced. You can see that in my brushstrokes. My textures are influenced by native textiles. I also spent a lot of summers as a child on our family ranch. It was a huge ranch, and we raised cattle. When the pandemic hit in 2020, and I couldn’t go home to Mexico, I painted to bring home to me. I called it My Coming Home collection. I found the subjects incorporated values I was trying to grow in myself.

NEXTpittsburgh: Values?

Ortiz: Each of my paintings has a value I’m trying to convey to people. If you need a little bit of courage, let this painting be your reminder you can do it. At the start of the pandemic, I watched a lot of nature shows. I learned a lot about the qualities of animals. A lion is not trying to be a bear. They’re just who they are. As humans, with all our social media, we’re trying to be somebody else or always comparing with each other. It can be an identity crisis to be unapologetically yourself. 

The hummingbird in Mayan tradition is meant to be a messenger of good fortune and love. The bulls represent boldness, strength. They’re also very tender animals. If you play with a bull from the time they are little, it’s just like a big dog. I have several paintings of wolves. Wolves are strong leaders, great educators. They love educating the cubs and directing them to protect each other. I painted “Leader of the Pack” because I want to lead in my art business. I painted the wolf in “Follow Your Instinct” because many times your gut tells you what to do but you might not heed it.

Gabriela Ortiz in her studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

NEXTpittsburgh: What convinced you to pursue art as a business? That was a big step away from a thriving career path.

Ortiz: I started painting out of necessity — (a) to put something on my wall that wasn’t from a store and (b) I needed a creative outlet to relax from the workday. At SMS Group I was head of purchasing for 21 facilities. I negotiated contracts, oversaw supplies, materials, services and oversaw a great team for an enormous range of responsibilities. Painting changed the way I looked at my work. I’d come home, paint to relax … then saw I was doing better at work. Things like, “Why didn’t I see the solution to this problem before, it’s so obvious?” The more I painted, the more creative I got with my ideas at work. Creativity is underrated in the corporate world. 

NEXTpittsburgh: What is your Spinning Plate show going to spotlight?

Ortiz: Golden Lil’ Treasures is a series of 21 small paintings either 4×4 or 6×6 in size that serve as reminders to cherish things you love dear. It’s a positive message for the holidays — freedom, self-love, memory. They are paintings about things I treasure, that I feel are “golden.” One is about daydreaming, daring to dream. Or memories I treasure from childhood. Several have wings and are a reminder that we all have wings to fly and just have to learn how to use them. The paintings of women are about self-care and self-love, which I find are treasures.

NEXTpittsburgh: One of your pieces was featured recently in the City-County Building as part of the Pittsburgh Paints initiative.

Ortiz: Yes, that is a program started by the mayor’s wife, Michelle Gainey, to highlight our city’s diversity, both the artists and the people. I see Pittsburgh as one giant canvas. Everywhere I go, I see the potential for paint. I’m not just talking about murals on walls, I’m talking about everything. “Hello, plain electric box, we could paint you! We could make you look beautiful!”

I am particularly obsessed with fire hydrants. They are so perky, so beautiful and have amazing personalities. They look like English policemen with their little helmets and waving their hands. A fire hydrant you could paint as varieties of traditional ethnic dress — Mexican, Italian, Polish, African, Chinese, whatever nationality. It would be a subtle message for inclusiveness. It could open up people to curiosity and make us even more of a city of good neighbors.

NEXTpittsburgh: You also use your art sales to directly support charitable causes.

Ortiz: Giving back is an important part of being an entrepreneur. Right now I support two causes. My “Flowers of Hope” supports the Alzheimer’s Association and the “Love Not War Heart” supports UNICEF Children in Ukraine. I love the idea of using my art to create awareness of causes close to my heart and aligned with my values. 

NEXTpittsburgh: What advice would you offer to readers wondering if they could make a transition to an art-based career? 

Ortiz: You have to paint what your heart is telling you about your life. My heart has told me I love doing art. If the vision is there, anything you think is possible. You’ll have the empowerment of taking what you love and sharing it. Don’t hold anything back. 

L.E. McCullough

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.