Art in Action: Empowering Communities for Health, Climate and Collective Action

The Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine held the first grand rounds of this academic year.

Artist Xavier Cortada holds secondary appointments in the School of Law and the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics.

The event was hosted at the Don Soffer Clinical Research Center on September 6 and featured Xavier Cortada, an artist and professor of Practice in the College of Arts and Sciences. Cortada showcased the transformative power of art in reframing ideas, sparking curiosity, nurturing creativity, and fostering empathy within communities.

“I use art to inspire to spark curiosity, to get individuals to be interested in something – and then usually I tie that in with an educational component,” said Cortada, J.D., M.P.A., a three-time University of Miami alumnus.

Art Spurs Awareness and Action

The Cuban-American artist is known for his interdisciplinary approach, which seamlessly bridges the realms of art and academia. With secondary appointments in the School of Law and in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Cortada’s art transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. His work is dedicated to generating awareness and inspiring action in response to critical environmental challenges, including issues such as climate change, sea level rise, and biodiversity loss.

Based in Miami, Cortada’s artistic journey has taken him from the North to the South Poles, making him the only artist to create work at both of the Earth’s extremities. His impact spans six continents, where he has created more than 150 public artworks, installations, murals, and socially-engaged projects over the past three decades. 

Cortada continues to make an impact on a local and global scale. His community-driven art initiatives have catalyzed more than 25 years of ecological restoration.

“Cortada pioneered eco-art in Miami-Dade County and was appointed by the mayor as the county’s inaugural artist-in-residence in 2022,” said David Lee, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School. 

During his talk, Cortada vividly demonstrated the transformative power of art in self-expression and vulnerability. By involving people in his engaged art projects, he ignites collective action, inspiring efforts to address societal concerns effectively. 

Art can mobilize communities, drive meaningful change, and shape a more sustainable future, emphasized Cortada. Encouraging individuals to reflect on the connection between the environment and personal well-being, his work underlines the vital role of art in promoting healthier and more resilient communities.

Cortada believes that art serves as a disarming platform that brings voices together. In particular, he highlighted the therapeutic role of art in helping individuals find different means to communicate their experiences constructively.

In an attempt to heal and amplify voices that have remained unheard, Cortada collaborated on the first annual Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Sexual Violence Prevention Conference in Dallas, Texas, in 2000. The nine-foot-long mural was created by Cortada and conference participants. 


Cortada’s “Trapped” portrays the desperation of a young girl trying to reclaim her voice.

“Art also serves in a very therapeutic way,” Cortada said. 

Cortada unveiled the narrative of a young girl confined within the walls of a psychiatric facility, whose fervent wish was to reclaim her voice. Terminated of maternal rights and a survivor of sexual abuse, she found herself bound in four-point restraints, subjected to injections administered by therapists.

“What we, as lawyers at the Children and Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami, wanted was for her to be able to have general counsel who would articulate and voice her own opinions,” expressed Cortada. The case reached the Florida Supreme Court. 

This mural project was commissioned by the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Law Clinic and funded through a community grant from the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs. The mural was created alongside youth from the Citrus residential program.


#KeepCoolMiamiDade is one of Cortada’s most recent projects. Drawing from findings in the heat report from the Mayor’s office, Cortada created images on cooling towels that vividly portray and capture the essence of the challenges in Miami-Dade County’s hot and humid climate.

#KeepCoolMiamiDade addresses the challenges of Miami-Dade County’s climate.

The radiant sun, boldly painted in yellow and orange, symbolizes the intense heat that can make everyday tasks challenging and even hazardous. Contrasting textured blues in the background emphasize the importance of staying hydrated, seeking shade, and finding ways to beat the heat.

Cortada partnered with MISSION, a prominent producer of cooling gear. MISSION was co-founded in 2009 by a group of scientists, engineers, heat-safety experts, and world-class athletes like Serena Williams and Dwyane Wade. 

Cortada’s art extends beyond conventional mediums. His creative approach also includes a unique project involving tree planting. Exhibiting multiple trees planted at the Florida Botanical Gardens, Cortada invited communities to join in the effort, encouraging them to plant trees and display flags in their homes to sequester carbon and preserve the North Pole. 

This initiative distributed 750 native trees and green flags inspiring a reversal of historical conquest narratives ­– a collective effort to reclaim land for nature – a resolute stance against the territorial claims of nations over the North Pole. The initiative extended to Congress and every single school in Miami-Dade County. 

Cortada emphasized the importance of truth-tellers in the realm of public health –  individuals who hold the public’s trust to tackle societal issues. He expressed his confidence in the department’s work, including its educational programs, community research, and capstone projects, as vital steps toward strengthening Miami’s resilience in the face of an increasingly challenging future.

“We need love. We need a sense of interconnection,” Cortada said.

Tags: Department of Pediatrics