Renowned Miami artist unveils decorative cooling towels to help people beat the heat

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Miami-Dade County artist-in-residence Xavier Cortada wants you to wipe your neck with his latest artwork.

At the Coral Gables Museum on Thursday, Cortada unveiled a series of paintings highlighting the threat of extreme heat in Miami. He also revealed a cooling towel, printed with one of his designs, which he hopes will keep people cool this summer.

Cortada designed the towels with Mission, a New York company that makes cooling gear for athletes and outdoor workers. Mission will donate 3,000 towels to the county to hand out to its employees and residents. The company will be selling the towels online and donate the proceeds to Cortada’s nonprofit foundation to support its Keep Cool Miami-Dade campaign.

“I’m trying to get people to understand that our communities are vulnerable,” said Cortada, a University of Miami professor and fulltime artist. “The cooling towels aren’t just for better performance, if you’re an athlete running a mile or playing tennis. … The cooling towels are also necessary if you’re working outdoors as a street vendor in la Calle Ocho and it’s just too hot.”

Cortada found inspiration for his art in Miami-Dade’s extreme heat action plan, which lays out the damage heat does to public health and the local economy. Heat kills 34 people a year countywide and sends hundreds more to hospitals, according to a 2022 report accompanying the plan. It also costs an estimated $10 billion a year in lost productivity to employers in the county, according to a separate report by the Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

Jane Gilbert, the county’s chief heat officer and one of the authors of the county’s heat plan, said she was pleased to see Cortada’s visual representation of her work. “I try a lot to reach people through facts and figures,” she said. “But art is another way of reaching people’s hearts.”

‘Coping with a warming planet’

Miami is already hot, and it’s only getting hotter.

An average day in Miami-Dade is nearly three degrees hotter than it was in the 1970s, according to the county’s heat action plan. And the hottest days are becoming more common. Back in 1960, Miami-Dade saw roughly 85 days a year when the temperature reached 90 degrees. Today, it’s 133 days a year. By 2050, it could be 187 days, according to the county report.

Cortada, the county’s first artist-in-residence, said he chose to design a cooling towel because it’s a way of “coping with a warming world” — a metaphor for the many ways South Florida will have to adapt to climate change.

One coping strategy is giving outdoor workers access to the same gear elite athletes use to cool off during games.

Chris Valletta, a former National Football League offensive lineman, founded Mission in 2009 to make cooling towels and clothing for athletes like tennis star Serena Williams, professional quarterback Drew Brees and Miami Heat basketball legend Dwyane Wade.

Chris Valletta, founder of Mission, a maker of apparel to help people stay cool on hot days, talks to guests during an event in Coral Gables where artist Xavier Cortada unveiled decorative cooling towels he created in partnership with Mission.
Chris Valletta, founder of Mission, a maker of apparel to help people stay cool on hot days, talks to guests during an event in Coral Gables where artist Xavier Cortada unveiled decorative cooling towels he created in partnership with Mission.

But the company soon expanded to offer the same gear to workers who push their bodies just as hard in the sun. Mission makes shirts, socks, gloves and helmet liners for companies like UPS, Halliburton and U.S. Steel.

“If you strip away the sport and the fan base and you just look at the conditions that someone like Serena Williams and a UPS driver are in, they’re very similar,” Valletta said. “In many cases, the UPS driver has a much longer match ahead of him or her. They’ve got eight-hour shifts, jumping in and out of hot trucks, running up and down delivering packages, carrying big loads.”

Keep cool Miami-Dade

Sales from Mission’s new line of Cortada-designed cooling towels will fund the Cortada Foundation, which just launched its Keep Cool Miami-Dade campaign.

As part of the campaign, Cortada, Valletta and Gilbert will host a conversation with police, firefighters, doctors and outdoor workers about extreme heat at the Coral Gables Museum on Friday. They’ll also invite families to come to the museum on Saturday to create videos about their experiences with heat and share them online.

Cortada also plans to host pop-up events at farmers markets, museums and shopping centers throughout the summer to teach Miami-Dade residents how they can stay safe on hot days. His foundation has launched a #KeepCoolMiamiDade campaign on social media to encourage Miamians to share their strategies for beating the heat.

Miami-Dade artist-in-residence Xavier Cortada shows off his cooling towel designed to help people stay cool in the county’s increasing number of days of extreme heat.
Miami-Dade artist-in-residence Xavier Cortada shows off his cooling towel designed to help people stay cool in the county’s increasing number of days of extreme heat.

“Let’s learn together about heat so that you’re aware and if you see someone with heat exhaustion, you can intervene and prevent it,” Cortada said.

‘Personification of heat’

Looming over Cortada’s event Thursday at the Coral Gables Museum were three large paintings warning about the threat of heat in Miami.

One, titled “The Personification of Heat,” shows the faces of anger, sorrow and despair that Cortada said represent the effects of heat. Another, titled “A Human Heat Map,” depicts a diverse array of Miamians suffering under the sun, to illustrate how every community in the county has to deal with the dangers of extreme heat. Finally, “Scorching Heat” features an ominous sun painted in all black.

“It’s a sun, but it’s a tortured sun,” Cortada said. “It’s a conduit for death, suffering and destroyed economies.”

His goal, he said, is not to let anybody off the hook for facing the local threat of heat, which is the most immediate effect of climate change Miami is facing.

“You may think, ‘I’ll be dead by then.’ That’s what I used to hear when I talked about sea level rise,” Cortada said. “But the heat can kill you at 3 p.m. with a heatstroke.”

This climate report is funded by Florida International University, the Knight Foundation and the David and Christina Martin Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.