Jesse Sierra Hernandez can't remember a time when his focus wasn't painting and drawing. But it took an unexpected friendship made at a fast-food restaurant to help him realize his potential.
"I always felt that I was an artist," said Hernandez, 48. "I never thought of doing anything else, being anything else."
Now Hernandez — decades after showing his art to an interested restaurant customer and duly impressing him — will be one half of the "Out of Focus" show at the Fort Worth gallery Fort Works Art on Saturday, Spring Gallery Night. He will be joined by artist Fabiola Valenzuela, a recent fine arts graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington and a 2017 Texas Biennial artist.
Hernandez considers himself to be self-taught. He grew up in the Loma neighborhood on Fort Worth's north side, one of seven children and the youngest. His mother, Juanita, ran the household along with his maternal grandfather, Jose Gonzalo Sierra, who lived with the family when Hernandez was young.
To this day, the artist honors his grandfather, who loved to wear hats. "Ask anyone and they'll know me as 'that guy who wears the hat,'" he said.
After graduating from Trimble Tech High School in 1988, Hernandez worked at several jobs around town. He was working at a Jack in the Box restaurant near Texas Christian University when a customer, after seeing some of Hernandez's artwork and glimpsing his promise, introduced him to TCU graphic design professor Don Punchatz, who invited him to his Saturday figure-drawing class.
"I could not afford it. There was a list of supplies, and I couldn't afford those either," he said. "I showed up with a pencil and a few sheets of paper."
But Punchatz saw what Hernandez could do and soon had him working in his commercial studio, where Hernandez said he learned every aspect of graphic design, which was all done by hand in those days.
Hernandez calls Punchatz, who founded Arlington's SketchPad Studio and was a nationally-known magazine and book cover illustrator, "a major influence." Punchatz died at age 73 in 2009.
"I thought I was pretty good, [but] Don was very honest with me. He was brutally honest. I thought, 'This guy really hates my work, and he hates me, too,'" Hernandez said. "But I was a young guy. You have to learn to take that criticism."
Punchatz encouraged Hernandez to think like an artist, telling him to go to galleries and museums in his spare time "to see what's out there." In 1996, Hernandez exhibited his art for the first time in a group show at the now-defunct Gallery Ten, in a building near where Fred's Texas Cafe still stands in the West 7th district near downtown Fort Worth.
Emboldened by that success, Hernandez decided he wanted to run his own gallery. A friend offered him a space next to the old Wreck Room bar on Seventh Street. Days after his first show opened, in 2000, an F3 tornado hit downtown and destroyed the gallery.
Hernandez was working in the kitchen of the original Four Star Coffee Bar on Seventh Street nearby when the sirens sounded. "We all hit the floor," he remembered.
He worked hard and put his life — and the gallery — back together, often working two jobs or more while managing the gallery. One of his jobs was at the buffet restaurant at the Kimbell Art Museum. When a job opening came up for an art preparer — installing and taking down exhibits — he applied and was hired.
"They took a chance on me. I told them I knew how to hang art. I didn't know how to handle things that cost millions of dollars," he said. Today, he's the head of the department.
He met his wife, Rebecca, at the Kimbell when she worked there part time in museum services.
Hernandez remembers his younger self going to the Kimbell for the first time to see an exhibit of Chinese art.
"Seeing those things touched me. I went to the art supply store and said 'I need canvas and oil' because that's what it said next to the paintings in the museum. I just started painting. I didn't know what I was doing."
Things are very different now.
"He makes it look so easy," Rebecca says of Hernandez's huge canvases, which depict religious icons, political themes and women, clothed and unclothed, all produced in his studio at home in the Riverside neighborhood of Fort Worth.
"I've tried to go smaller," Hernandez said. "But I love to get a big canvas and pick a fight with it."
Among his 11 works in the "Out of Focus" show is an early painting of his two brothers and himself foreshortened and sitting in chairs. He titled it "Tres Hermanos."
One of the brothers, Robert, died in November 2016. Especially for this show, he made another painting, this time of the two survivors — "Dos Hermanos."
Although he describes his palette as muted, and it generally is, he says he has a fondness for red. "If it calls for it, you're going to see it," he said.
Hernandez developed a stutter as a boy. After speech therapy, it's still as much a part of him as his Peters Bros. fedoras.
"Normally, I'm a soft talker," Hernandez said. "Painting gives me that voice, without ever being talked over or ignored."
'Out of Focus'
- An exhibit of artworks by Fort Worth artists Jesse Sierra Hernandez and Fabiola Valenzuela
- Through May 5; opening reception noon-9 p.m. Saturday, March 24, Spring Gallery Night
- Fort Works Art, 2100 Montgomery St., Fort Worth
- 817-759-9475; www.fortworksart.com
Fort Worth Art Dealers Association Spring Gallery Night
- Noon- 9 p.m. Saturday, March 24
- Galleries, museums and other locations throughout Fort Worth
- For details and a map of Gallery Night participants, visit www.fwada.com.