Kaleidoscape: Michael Ortiz bends time and space with paint

Graffuturist Denver painter Michael Ortiz creates uptopian worlds with the stroke of a brush all over the Mile High City and now within our dark ride.

If you live in or visit Denver you’ve seen Michael Ortiz’s work on a wall somewhere — the massive mural gracing the side of LoDo’s Nativ Hotel, the flash of bright geometry seen when riding the A Train on the side of Denver Rock Drill, at downtown’s Denver Center of the Performing Arts, or in the background of countless Instagram selfies. His style is instantly recognizable, creating its own sense of place and managing to stand out boldly in a town now filling up with murals, spawning a brand that is unmistakably Denver.

You don’t get that amount of work up on gigantic walls without a whole lot of hustle, and Ortiz is constantly working as a full-time artist, most recently on the much anticipated Meow Wolf dark ride unveiled on April 20 at Denver’s Elitch Gardens amusement park. His grind is so strong he was on a plane to Jamaica to work with Bob Marley’s family to create artwork for the country’s first dispensary before his walls were dry in Denver.

Michael Ortiz working on the Dark Ride “Kaleidoscape” at Elitch Gardens in Denver. Photo by Kate Russell.

Called Kaleidoscape, the Elitch attraction is billed as “the first artist-driven dark ride the world has ever seen,” and with a name like that it’s clear why Ortiz was one of the artists chosen after a preliminary group trip to Santa Fe to visit the House of Eternal Return. With bright colors and intersecting planes describing an impossible Escher-like space, moving past Ortiz’s murals creates a shifting architectural landscape that both can’t really exist and yet is utterly convincing as real. The dark ride, a former “zombie-themed ride that got Meow Wolfed,” was created by both long-time Meow Wolf artists and several Denverites.

Ortiz counts himself as part of #grafuturism — a movement connected to the history of graffiti, but diverging from the focus on lettering and allowing for an evolution into abstract forms. Just as the original futurists, the political atmosphere of our times affects Ortiz’s utopian visions, lending to acid-bright colors and a vibrating rhythm that is echoed through a movement of other artists’ works bearing the same hashtag. “The guy who sprays my base coats — just a normal, everyday guy — called my work ‘limitless’ and I like that,” Ortiz explains over coffee, where I added the word “hopeful” — in particular, the sun-drenched tropical hues shining from the darkness shifting into new tones as the ride’s cars bump past. Moving around his work, the planes vacillate in an optical illusion, creating new perspectives in shadows and corners that aren’t quite there, providing windows into possible worlds that transmogrify into walls for an unending, and yes, kaleidoscopic redefinition of continually bending space.

Though mostly planned in advance, Ortiz uses taping the way other artists use a pencil, “sketching” on the walls and creating an outline with spray paint before he masses swaths of rich color in latex with a roller on his monumental concrete canvass. Sometimes though, as seen at Dairy Block downtown, his approach is less planned and more improvisational jazz, working his way intuitively up four stories and creating a free-spirited jumble of intersecting forms that seem to shoot out from the wall in every direction.

The best part of working on the dark ride for Ortiz is that they “didn’t confine or limit” him. And for someone who creates utopian visions of impossible architectural suggestions by “bending time and space with paint,” that seems like a utopian world indeed.

Michael Ortiz’s work in Kaleidoscape at Elitch Gardens, now open!

THIS FEATURE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN BIRDY MAGAZINE.