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Comics artist Ortega helps ICA visitors share their stories

Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

Agood comic, says artist Dave Ortega, is made up of three things: pictures, words, and whatever the reader’s imagination fills in.

The words and pictures are building blocks, but imagination is the crucial component of “Comics: Frame by Frame,” Ortega’s interactive comics installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Bank of America Art Lab, up through June 26.

It’s magnetic poetry for the graphic-novel set. Ortega invites visitors to make their own stories, using panels he provides. He has designed 50 individual panels for visitors to play with. On Feb. 19 and April 22, Ortega will be on hand to do demo drawings and encourage nascent comics artists.


The panels feature stylized, blocky images in black and white. Many, printed on foam core, are mounted and movable over the walls. Others are on gridded tables, where groups can brainstorm.

Ortega says the panels are “open-ended, not tied to anything specific.” They include pictures of a cyclist, a figure chopping carrots, people in white coats examining an X-ray, and more. Paper stick-on speech bubbles are available to add dialogue.

“It’s an all-encompassing art installation,” says Monica Garza, the ICA’s director of education. “Bright walls when you walk in, a banner. Each wall has a different story.”

The aim, Ortega says, is to spark the muse.

“Juxtaposing one image with another does something in our brain to create a narrative,” says Ortega. “It’s a way that we want to tell stories — through the stuff that’s around us. Like the cavemen forming stories out of constellations. Comics are an extension of that. They force us to make relationships and draw inferences between panels.”

Last fall, Ortega self-published the first in a projected series of comic books based on the memories of his grandmother, who was born at the height of the Mexican Revolution. Now 101, she lives in El Paso. The initial issue, “Dias de Consuelo” actually predates her birth — it sets the story of her parents’ courtship and marriage against the violent backdrop of the revolution.


“As I’ve been talking to my grandmother, my curiosity was piqued about her and my history; I thought it would be perfect for a graphic-novel format,” says Ortega. “Because she’s 101, there are large gaps in the story, and I’ve had to decide how to fill them.”

He threw himself into research. The comic includes a summary of the history of the Mexican Revolution, as well as references to paper currency issued at the time (colloquially called “bedsheets” because it was so big), and courtship rituals of the day.

Future issues — Ortega thinks there will be five, maybe six — will follow the young family as his grandmother’s father flees to the US, and she, her baby sister, and her mother stay in Mexico with her grandmother — the artist’s great-great grandmother.

“It’s a powerful woman’s story,” Ortega says.

Ortega didn’t grow up reading comics. As a kid in El Paso, he got many of his stories from video games. One of the bookshelves in his Somerville studio is populated with video game figurines, such as Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers.

In college at the University of Texas at El Paso, he met his friend and now fellow Boston artist Raúl Gonzalez III, who handed him a stack of comics.

“He kicked me through the doorway,” Ortega says. He saw how different artists — Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller — used the composition of their panels to ease transitions in the narrative. In “Dias de Consuelo,” he sticks to a traditional grid, and the rectangular panels and table grids in “Frame by Frame” encourage the same format.


“Using a set number of panels imposes a rhythm, almost a musicality, to the comic,” he says. “It makes it easier, in some ways, to take in.”

He has written other comics, which he takes to book fairs and expos. “It’s how I get my work out there,” he says. They’re mostly about Mexican history and the Spanish Conquest. “It’s not a closed loop of history,” he says. “It’s still an open wound.”

The “Frame by Frame” program, available daily to anyone who wanders into the Art Lab, is about how we build stories. Collectively, societies shape history in much the same way: by sorting information and imposing narrative arcs, trying to make sense of what may feel chaotic in the moment.

Garza sees links between Ortega’s work and that of Walid Raad, whose solo show opens at the ICA next week (Feb. 24). Raad’s photos, videos, and sculptures unpack recent history in the Arab world.

“They’re both examining histories — how they’re constructed, and whose they are,” she says.

A clever, funny handout comic Ortega designed for “Frame by Frame” follows Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a meta-adventure. Toward the end, Don Quixote explains compartmentalization — the distillation of information — as a means by which the brain works, as well as comic strips.


“So, comics are like memory, memory is like comics,” Sancho Panza replies, “and death comes to us all.”

Comics: Frame by Frame

At Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave., through June 26. 617-478-3100,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.