As a child I was fascinated with books like Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Beatrix Potter’s stories of Peter Rabbit.
In these fantastic worlds animals talk, have tea, carry pocket watches, and wear scarves and shoes. Now I read these stories to my children, and I can see their wonder as they follow the adventures of the animals. It’s usually more difficult as an adult to believe in lands where animals behave like humans, but not for Laramie artist Favian Hernandez.
I visited Hernandez at his studio in Laramie. He has a quick smile and a whole-hearted laugh — one that extends into his art. He is an illustrator and sculptor who explores the anthropomorphic lives of animals. When I stepped into his studio, I felt like I had walked into a storybook. Reality mixed with the imagination as animal’s personalities came to life on the walls.
Between the illustrations and sculptures I saw sheep, lemurs, bears, a gemsbok, a flamingo, a crane, and an antelope. Complete pieces as well as works in progress decorate his studio, helping me to dissect how he creates his fun, engaging, and colorful masterpieces.
In his illustrations the animals wear clothes, ride bicycles, dance, and have other animal companions. Some of the animal sculptures wear simple clothing — such as a hat — while others are more ornate, the details of the dress as important as conveying the emotion of the animal.
The sculptures and mounts are papier machê studies of his illustrations. “I really like making a sketch and converting it into a 3D object. That’s really fun for me.”
While his sculptures play on the whimsical and imagined life of the animal — the crane wears a gold crown, the sheep a string of pearls, and the gemsbok clay buttons that Hernandez made — they are also anatomically correct. The face, ears and horns of particular pieces are lifelike.
When I asked him if he grew up around animals, he said, “my exposure to animals came from the town zoo.” Not what I was expecting to hear from someone who grew up in Kansas. The Ralph Mitchell Zoo was established in 1925 in Independence, Kansas next to the town park. Hernandez went there often as a child and recalled seeing elephants, bears, and monkeys. “I loved to visit the elephant,” he said.
His interest in art started at a young age. The woman who gave him lessons introduced him to several techniques, and eventually he went on to study Media Arts and Animation at the Art Institute, both in Denver and San Francisco. However, Hernandez found animation was not his strength.
“I was better at creating a moment of the story,” he said. He continued his art career in illustration.
Hernandez’s inspiration also comes from Disney, Looney Tunes, and movies such as Labyrinth and the Never Ending Story. They prompted ideas for his illustrations, which led to his 3D creations. Encouraged by his partner to be a full time artist, Hernandez eventually began to turn his illustrations into sculptures. The memory of his mother making piñatas for children in his hometown guided the transformation of his artistic venture.
Hernandez studies the animal long before he begins the drawing or the sculpture. He’ll look at images, analyzing how the face changes, viewing it from different angles. His mastering of facial expressions is impressive. The ostrich comes across as irritated, the ewe arrogant, and the antelope a little self-conscious to be on display.
“My parents taught me to be resourceful,” he told me. Looking at his creations it is easy to see that it took time for him to develop all of the many aspects and techniques that go into his work. He draws on his memories from education, his visits to the town zoo, and newspapers.
“I definitely don’t throw away newspapers,” Hernandez laughed.
Like his mother did before him, Hernandez starts his sculptures with a balloon and covers it with strips of newspaper and paste. He then forms the balloon. The most challenging part of the process is keeping the balloon molded so that the newspaper dries properly. Then he sands it, covers the sculpture with craft paper, seals it, and brings the animal to life by painting and accessorizing.
“I want it to be fun. I want people to enjoy the pieces,” he says when I ask him about the crown on the crane and the feathers behind the ewe’s ear that looks like a woman’s hairpiece from the 1930’s.
Hernandez enjoys searching for jewelry, a tie clip, or a cufflink that he can turn into an ornament. He experiments with vintage clothing to add humor and personality, and he names the pieces based on his pairings. For instance the ewe is named, “Gertrude” and the gemsbok, “Bernard.” Names do more than title the pieces.
“Each one is so different,” he says. “Through the process they come to life and I see their personality and say, ‘Oh, that’s who you are.’”
Painting a piece takes a minimum of 12 hours. He mixes natural tones with bright accents. For instance, the bear has a black head and a tan nose, but blue, purple, and pink flecks of color emphasize his character. Hernandez explained that he follows his instinct and paints with the colors he sees when he is studying the animal.
“Some of them are exaggerations,” he chuckles.
One of my favorite pieces is a jack-a-lope. Instead of trying to make the fantastic animal realistic in terms of color and shading, Hernandez mixes blue, purple, turquoise, and white. He employs a technique referred to as stippling, which uses numerous brush strokes to blend colors and create a decorative effect on his pieces.
“I wish animals could communicate with us,” he says. “I wish it was true.” He began creating sculptures partly because he wanted his drawings to be real, something he could hold and have around.
From start to finish, it takes Hernandez approximately two months to complete a piece. Over the past year he has completed several commissioned pieces and sold many others. He has shown his work at several local and regional venues. These successes are no surprise since his pieces evoke a sense of wonder and joy and are charming and attractive. They are studies of familiar animals, provide a visual and anthropomorphic twist on our human reality, and are infused with Hernandez’s curiosity and ingenuity.
“I love to smile and I love to laugh. It’s fun to put that into my art.”
To learn more about Favian Hernadez and his sculptures and illustrations, visit his website: https://www.favianhernandez.com/
Molly Bredehoft lives and writes in Laramie. She is working on her MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Arts through the University of Alaska Anchorage low residency program. She enjoys the outdoors, hiking, skiing, and exploring new places.