Saturday, June 16, 2018

Sergio Hernandez, Chicano Artist and Social Political Gadfly by Antonio SolisGomez

We stared at the bold heavy block letters of the application, a distinguishing feature among the dozens of other student applications we had received for summer employment at the International Institute. The handwriting was like Chicano calligraphy, assertive yet relaxed and we decided that anyone with that kind of talent deserved employment and we hired him. Maxine Junge, the Director of Operation Adventure had put together a program that offered kids from the Pico Aliso Housing project in Boyle Heights, classes in photography, newspaper writing, drama, dance, science and art and Sergio, our Chicano calligrapher, a sweet innocent young man with a talent for art was a great fit to work with kids from that environment.

Sergio's  Painting A New Beginning ( a commentary on immigration)

Art was already and integral part of his life. In kindergarten he had been asked to draw a tree and a rabbit and his teacher had praised him, setting him on his course. He drew cartoon like characters, cars and material he copied from Mad Magazine. In High school he drew cartoons for the school
newspaper and he was one of two students asked to participate in a summer art program at the Otis Art Institute.

We hired him the summer of 1968 and Sergio, who was 19, had attended East Los Angeles College with the thought of following in the footsteps of his dad and uncles and becoming a baseball player but he came to realize that such a career was not for him and began to focus on art.

 I was already working with Con Safos Magazine and invited Sergio to help us illustrate some of the stories and essays that we were publishing and I gave him our first issue so that he could look it over and reach a decision. He was a young stud with other things on his mind and forgot about my invitation until I reminded him a few weeks later and out of embarrassment, he said yes. The members of Con Safos, were Chicanos, college graduates, community activists, boozers, tokers, more interested in the process of creation than in pleasing factions that had sprung up with rigid agendas such as the Brown Berets or the leftists in Carnalismo. 
Arturo Flores and Sergio's portrait of Reuben Salazar

Sergio, although 10 or 15 years younger, was a perfect fit. His mind was agile and creative and and he could read a piece and quickly decide how he could illustrate it. And he was also as independent as any of us.

When he began thinking of creating the Arnie and Porfi Cartoon during one of our nightly drinking, smoking, music making sessions, everyone pitched in with story lines and Sergio, now fully baptized and anointed, took it all in, nodding in appreciation, laughing at the wit being offered and promising to deliver. Which he did days later and it was brilliant but none of the elements that he was offered that night were in the finished cartoon. He had gone home and reworked it to his satisfaction, that was how he worked, then and now.

Frank Sifuentes, one of our members, was instrumental in getting Sergio enrolled at Cal State Northridge, where he began to hone his artistic skills and where he met his future wife Diane. It was love at first sight but it was also rocky initially, trying to decide his future career. But he chose the life of a family man setting aside some of his aspirations in art and upon receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree began working as a Probation officer with Los Angeles County.

Portion of the UCLA mural painted by Sergio
Married in 1977,  he and Diane gave birth to three daughters and he painted only occasionally. When they bought a house in Acton in 1985, he had a garage that he used as a studio and began painting for himself. In that same year he took a job as an investigator for the Public Defenders Office and worked with that office until 1995 when he had a stroke that partially paralyzed his left side. He couldn’t work for a year and it was then that he began painting more regularly.

He did return to work and worked until 2009 when he retired and it was then that he could devote himself more fully to his art. The old adage “everything is grist for the mill” applies to the material Sergio has chosen to depict, originating in his diverse life experiences. He grew up in the Florencia Barrio, had relatives in Mexico, worked with youth in the criminal justice system and later with adults, experienced discrimination and injustice that Chicanos have faced, had relatives and friends that have died fighting wars for this country, marched in protest against Vietnam and for farmworker rights, and remained rooted to his Latino culture. It’s all there in his paintings, cartoons and in his personality. I don’t know of any artist more fully committed to the depiction of the full gamut of the Chicano experience, capturing la vida cotidiana (daily life) such as work as well as leisure time activities.

The great Cuban Singer Celia Cruz

 He has received many honors for his work and has been invited to participate in art shows and exhibits too numerous to mention. And through all the adulations he has received he has remained the same person, insanely passionate about trying to correct wrongs that are being perpetuated, calling out stupidity, cowardliness and racism wherever it’s encountered.

Yet he also continues to have a mischievous , at times outlandish, sense of humor for he continues to marvel at the incongruities of people, the outright foibles, his funny bone always on the lookout.

 Much of that is presently focused on the  political life of the country in his cartoons but also in his commentary on social media.

One aspect not usually known is his passion for classic automobiles that he developed early on, leading to automotive classes where he learned all aspects of automotive restoration. He is presently restoring a VW Bug and a 1950 Buick.

And he has painted a cover for a music album and one for a book.

Los Peludos

Yet another hidden interest is history. Early on he painted the 7th Gurka Rifles who fought for and alongside the British when they ruled India.

Contact for Sergio


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