Art Lift - Oct 09 2020

Joel Hernandez

WWhen Joel’s second grade teacher told his mom, “Your son is a leader,” he burst into tears. “I don’t want to be a leader!” he replied. His shoulders were plenty burdened already. Joel was given far more responsibilities than a typical child. Strangely, these challenges were never enough to satisfy him; he constantly learns new skills and takes on new projects that have led to personal and professional success. Happily, he isn’t crying about being a leader now. 

Both his Guatemalan father and Mexican mother had to help support their families from a young age, and neither had the luxury of finishing school. They met in Los Angeles working in a textile factory and started a family in East LA before they were 21. 

Though he didn’t speak English until he was 7, Joel immediately became the family translator, attending his parents’ medical appointments and talking on the phone to insurance companies. He also kept busy washing the cars, tending the garden, cleaning the house, and working in construction alongside his father when he wasn’t in school. 

His dad quickly became a successful carpenter for wealthy and famous people in the Hollywood hills, and his mother forged a career as a fashion pattern maker with a six-figure salary. This dream team had no tolerance for sloth and expected nothing but the best from their first-born.

The walls of his childhood bedroom are covered with hanging medals, framed awards, original artwork (drawings, paintings and mixed-media) and shelves displaying trophies and ceramic sculptures. During his high school years, he participated in nearly every sport that was offered, excelled in art classes, built sets for the theater department, starred in a play, made short films that were used at school rallies and was voted Senior Class President. He also worked at a grocery store and volunteered as a peer college counselor. 

He was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, but their film department was too conceptual. Joel’s dream was to become a television producer, making Spanish language programs that would educate and inspire Latinos. So, he chose San Francisco State University, where he doubled-majored in Latino Studies and Broadcasting Arts. During his final semester, he interned for CBS, a major television station in the national market. He had no idea that within the next two years, his life would completely change course.

Not content to fetch coffee and make photocopies, at CBS he ran cameras, did interviews, helped with Spanish to English translation, edited footage––put his hand on everything that would push or demonstrate his skills. They liked him so much they gave him full-time job as a video news editor, but the pay ceiling was low, and the work was unsatisfying. He had to rethink his future. 

“I didn’t have a specific job in mind, but I knew that I wanted to work with my hands, build things and solve problems.” Even though he respected his father’s work, he wanted something that would flex his creative and critical mind.

He enrolled in a machining certificate program. One day, Joel and his classmate Mike had to walk through a job fair to get to class. He thought Mike was joking when he said, “The woman at the NASA table is checking you out,” but then he saw that she was. In English, checking someone out has a few meanings. The most common two are
1) inspecting someone or something to obtain information and
2) looking up and down a person to whom the viewer is physically attracted. Either or both could have been correct.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge this nonessential fact: Joel Hernandez is, unfairly, as handsome as he is talented. He approached the table and learned that NASA was offering internships for students enrolled in machining programs. 

After the interviewers learned that Joel also had a construction background and a rare zeal for building they gave him a 9-month paid internship in the metal fabrication department, but just three months into it, they offered him a full-time job. One year later, he won “Employee of the Year.” Today, though he’s the youngest person in his division, he is a supervisor. 

This is, if you’ll forgive the corny metaphor, a story of rocketing success. His trajectory is inspiring, but we want to zoom in on his home now. It’s as colorful and eclectic as his story and full of his own handmade art. 

“I need to be challenged,” he says. Joel is not content without a project, even when he comes home from work. Ceramic bowls and cups, wooden vessels made on a lathe, a teak dining room table and matching benches that he made in under two days, a three-drawer kitchen hutch made of fir and cedar: these are the original pieces in his kitchen alone. The two small, round tables were made especially for the small unit in a Victorian house, his prior residence in San Francisco. He and his new wife needed furniture that was space-efficient and versatile. They used the tables for cups or books during the day and for eating pizza in the living room on a movie night, and when they hosted friends for dinner, the tables could spin up to become dining stools. This was perfect, because they didn’t have room to keep two extra chairs. They began as futuristic-looking sketches with pieces that would all be custom-made.  

“It’s not just about solving a problem, but the feeling that a handmade object evokes. Presentation is such a big part of the space. Cheap things, plastic... a lot of manufactured objects just detract from the beauty that could be.”