Art for change CoverArtist:Tammy Ortegon’s art has something to say

If you’ve been to the corner of 34th and Cedar or the corner of 38th and Grand in Minneapolis you’ve seen Tammy Ortegon’s artwork on a big scale. She has organized youth in her south Minneapolis neighborhood to create murals on the sides of two buildings-the Corcoran Neighborhood Center and Peter Pan Cleaners. 

Art for change is a big part of Ortegon’s mission in her community. “I see graffiti-the negative or bad stuff-and I say ‘why?’ When I see an empty wall and it looks ugly, I want to paint it, too. I love beautiful graffiti work that’s done with permission.” Ortegon has volunteered hundreds of hours to work with youth to beautify her neighborhood. She asks young people, “Do you want to promote some negative thing or do you want to promote something beautiful?” 

Tammy Ortegon (Photo Courtesy of Tammy Ortegon)

Mother lines

Ortegon’s creative, colorful, folk art style of painting has been influenced by her heroes, Frida Kahlo and Faith Ringgold. And, she finds herself standing on the shoulders of her mother and grandmother. “They were really great artists, but they didn’t have the privilege to be artists,” she said. She found her grandmother’s ink and colored drawings after she had died, hidden in a box under her bed. “It was [thought to be a] frivolous thing to do your art when you had a family to take care of,” she said of her grandmother who was a single parent with seven children. Ortegon became a single parent, too. She dropped out of school when she became pregnant at age 18. “I was on AFDC, really struggling, going to [hair] school, working so hard. I had a baby and I had nothing,” Ortegon said of her earlier days. “I stayed strong, faced my fears, and kept saying to myself ‘you can do it,’ even though I felt like I couldn’t,” she recalled. “I’ve learned a lot from the mistakes I’ve made. They’ve made me stronger.” 

Accessible art

You can see her work on a smaller scale at the ColorWheel Gallery, an art gallery and one-chair hair salon that she started eight years ago. Her mission is showcasing art that has something to say. She wants art to get people talking and connecting. “It’s an accessible art gallery. Anyone can feel comfortable here,” she said. “It’s not a foo-foo art gallery that people are afraid to come to.” 

Four times a year she puts together shows around themes. She hosts the annual “Fight Like a Mother” exhibit during Mother’s Day weekend. In the summer, it’s a street arts festival; in the fall it’s a youth-focused show and in December, a holiday show with the theme of “buying locally and supporting the artists around us.” 

Someday, she said, she’d like to do “less hair and more art,” but for now, the hair cutting work helps pay the bills. 

The ColorWheel Gallery is located at 319 W. 46th St. in Minneapolis. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.