With a lot of love and a little serendipity, artist Katie Ortega makes a living turning reclaimed pallets into works of art.
A row of red, orange and yellow paints sit at a foot of the pallet wood canvas. Katie Ortega’s sketchbook is off to the left, laying open to an intricate design themed around passion and desire. She’s just started painting the center of the mandala with the fiery hues.
She’s tapping into the energy of the first three chakras. Red is the color of the root chakra; it symbolizes security. Orange is the color of the sacral chakra; it carries a meaning of creativity. And yellow is the color of the solar plexus chakra, associated with self-confidence.
The painting is partly inspired by the number nine, which is represented by a nine-petaled lotus. Among its many meanings in numerology, the number represents spiritual awakening and service to humanity.
“That’s what I’m going through right now,” Ortega said. “I have this desire to fulfill my life purpose and to be of service to others. I’m still battling fear.”
Growing up, she didn’t think she could make a living as an artist. She ended up dropping out of college to take a well-paying job in the debt collections department of a bank. That detour lasted nine years. By the time she left, she was “soulless.” She recovered that piece of herself by picking up a paintbrush again.
“I started asking myself: what’s the one thing that I do for me that nobody has to tell me to do? What’s the one thing I can wake up and do all day? That was art,” she said. “Through my art I can inspire other people to meditate, to look within, to find their true worth.”
Ortega took a winding journey to arrive at this level of enlightenment. She worked a few odd jobs after the bank. Then, two years ago, she made a bold move in a twist of fate.
Not long after her grandpa died from liver cancer, she looked at her work schedule and noticed she had a whole week off. She thought, Oh, that’s nice and considerate, then made travel plans to drop off a painting at Herbs & Arts, an eclectic metaphysical shop in Denver.
On the Sunday before her trip, she got a message from her supervisor about needing to be at work the next day. There was a mistake in the schedule. She was never supposed to have the week off. But her plans had been made. Her boyfriend said, “Let’s just try this out and see what happens. If it’s meant to be, we’ll go from here.”
Through my art I can inspire other people to meditate, to look within, to find their true worth.
She quit her job, went to Denver and left her painting there. Three months later, it sold for $400. She’s been making art ever since.
Now, the evening sun shines through the window of her small in-home studio. Her mandala paintings hang on the walls of the living room and the dining room. In Sanskrit, mandala means “circle,” and at the most basic level, it represents wholeness.
When Ortega paints, she sits in quiet surrender, feeling into the intuitive process.
“Mandalas are meditative,” she said, adding a bit of history about the Tibetan monks who painstakingly create mandalas out of sand; there’s a brief moment of beauty before everything is blown away, making space for something new.
In her studio, there’s a painting that she loves, but she’ll have to let it go.
The painting is for an aspiring photographer who wants to travel and blog, but she’s worried that she won’t find security.
The symbol for the throat chakra emblazons the center of the circle; it’s there to help the other woman express herself the way she needs to. Ortega incorporated eight elephants and eight-petaled lotuses for strength and abundance. There’s a bright green ring around the symbols to give the photographer the confidence to listen to herself, her intuition.
It’s a message Ortega needs, too.
“We can do whatever we want, but we get caught up in our fear,” she said. “Everything is surrounded by love. When we walk with love, we can do it.”
Ally Karsyn is an award-winning journalist, photographer and founder of Beacon Story Lab, which creates more courageous, compassionate and connected communities through the healing art of storytelling. Karsyn offers storytelling workshops, coaching sessions and other creative services. She also produces live storytelling events and a podcast. More details at beaconstorylab.com. This article was originally published in YogaIowa magazine in October 2018.