UI alum honors Uvalde shooting victims with murals

University of Iowa alum and artist Abel Ortiz organized a 21-mural project to heal the Uvalde, Texas community after the mass shooting in May.


Contributed photo from Abel Ortiz.

Mark Fortunato, Arts Reporter

With a palette of bright, vibrant paint and a brick canvas, a determined artist brushes long strokes of color across a wall in the middle of downtown Uvalde, Texas, hoping his feat will spark a change.

Abel Ortiz moved from Mexico to Texas when he was 7 years-old and had a hard time adjusting to the U.S. as he did not speak much English. His first day of school was difficult, and he attempted to run away. 

His teacher placed him at a desk and was armed only with a pencil and paper. He started to draw, and it was his way of dealing with trauma, calming him down in fearful times.

An alum of the University of Iowa and now a resident of Uvalde, Texas, where he is professor at the Southwest Texas Junior College, was among the grief-stricken community when the Robb Elementary School shooting took place on May 24, 2022. 21 people were killed, 19 of them children.

The community of Uvalde was shocked by the horror that took place at Robb Elementary, including Ortiz. Ortiz has personal memories with the school and the families, with his own children taught there before. After considering how to help his community, he looked back at his art and the first day of school.

“I know that art can heal [and] can bring about some kind of peace,” Ortiz said.

The project was very daunting at first, with 21 victims to be painted across the town. From the initial idea to finally painting the last stroke, Ortiz estimated the project could take up to 8 years. Once word got around, artists from across the U.S. flocked to Uvalde in support to help paint more murals. Ortiz said 50 artists and assistants showed up to the city and worked tirelessly with each other for his idea to become a reality. 

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Along with the community’s support, the project was completed in just over three months, a feat that Ortiz thought was impossible.

There are 21 murals within a five-block span, each one dedicated to a student of Robb Elementary. Ortiz painted the first one, but one was not enough. 

Knowing that painting each mural would be a challenge, he started a GoFundMe, raising $31,000. The mural fund reached singer and TV host Kelly Clarkson, who donated $10,000.

Ortiz recognized he required permission from the family members to paint his murals, so he reached out. Though the weight of knowing their children were killed was heavy, eventually each family gave permission to have their loved ones memorialized in their hometown.

Ortiz painted Eliahna Garcia, who was 9 years old when she was killed. She had a love for basketball, which is what Ortiz framed the mural around. 

Garcia is seen holding a bright orange basketball with the phrase “live like Ellie” to her left. Her outfit is a black long sleeve shirt, with her purple jersey bearing the phrase Champion right in front, with her number, “21,” on the sleeve. 

Across the bottom of the mural says “All Star” in red and blue, accompanied by a shooting star and a collage of stars and butterflies, as well as her favorite food, ramen.

Ortiz said Ellie’s parents are so touched by this mural that they walk and drive by the mural every morning. He noted that although she is gone, they can still remember and honor her every day. Other families gather with their loved ones’ murals to have dinner and be with them.

“We see the results of the healing starting to maybe work, but it’s going to be a long, long process,” Ortiz said.

The community was moved by Ortiz’s work and would help in any way they could. Building owners saw his vision and offered space on their walls. A nun gave him four walls on the side of a family center where 11 murals view the street. Another mural is displayed on the side of an old movie theater.

“The community was very supportive. They would come in and drop off food for the muralists [and] ice, water, motivational words, you name it,” Ortiz said. “We had even pastors coming by and praying in front of the murals.” 

Ortiz hopes that people won’t simply drive by and look at them but instead fully engage with them. 

His idea is to create a memorial art walk with the intention that people could fully experience the “whole story of the child.” He imagines that by walking to each mural, each path represents a pattern to a stitch of a wound, and seeing each child is healing the wound. 

Ortiz encourages anyone to see the murals face-to-face. 

“Once you get here, you see the power of the emotion that they provoked,” he said. “It’s an experience that needs to be [seen] in person.”