Birds figure largely in the work of Maribel Hernandez. The Ventura artist used to watch flocks of them swooping and swaying through the sky as one, and was mesmerized by their grace and fluidity. “When I was a little girl . . . every afternoon I went to see the birds,” she recalls. “The waves, the thousands and thousands. I referred to them as un océano de pájaros — literally an ocean of birds.”

She has created a flock of her own, currently nesting in her studio at Bell Arts Factory. These ceramic birds will form part of a large installation at the Tool Room Gallery, which Hernandez will attempt to turn into something of a birdcage. “Of course the door will be open,” she says. The message: Don’t be afraid to take flight.

OUT OF MEXICO

“When I see the birds flying, I sense the freedom,” the artist says. “And they are, of course, migrants. I relate to that.”

A native of Michoacan, Mexico, Hernandez grew up in a “very small town.” She didn’t necessarily think of herself as an artist from a young age, but she did have a pronounced creative streak. She made custom hopscotch grids shaped like spirals and dolls, and cherished a colored-pencil set she received as a gift from her grandmother.

Hernandez moved to California in 1988, when she was just 18 years old. But unlike her feathered friends, which seemed to be at home no matter where they landed, Hernandez found that “being an immigrant is not easy.” She first settled in Fillmore in 1988, where she struggled to learn the language.

“I took my first art class [at Ventura College in the 1990s] thinking that art was universal, and that I didn’t need to speak the language.” She quickly learned that it was a naive notion. Nevertheless, she persevered, having bilingual friends help her understand the homework assignments. Despite the language barrier, her teachers quickly recognized her talent, and helped the budding artist translate her creative language through her work.

INFLUENCES NEAR AND FAR

Hernandez is proud of her Mexican heritage, and cites the work of Frida Kahlo as making an impression on her, growing up. Her studio is full of homages to the famous artist: portraits, pendants, shadow boxes and more. David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the fathers of Mexican Muralism, is another influence. She also has a real love of Amedeo Modigliani, known for his long, expressive faces.

Many Ventura County artists have had an impact on Hernandez’s artistic development as well. She was supported and encouraged by local luminaries such as Hiroko Yoshimoto, Gerd Koch, Debra McKillop and Carlisle Cooper (who she still refers to as “Mr. Cooper”). “I took one of my first graphic design courses with Jim Graca,” Hernandez remembers. “He was able to understand me beyond words.” Graca and Hernandez stay in touch, and he is a regular attendee at her First Fridays open studio.

“I always see them as my maestros,” Hernandez says of her former instructors.

One teacher in particular is remembered with great fondness: the painter and sculptor Len Poteshman. “He always inspired me,” she says with warmth and a touch of sadness. “He was always doing something new.” Poteshman received his MFA from the University of Guadalajara, and delighted in practicing his Spanish with Hernandez. Studio 97, her current space at Bell Arts, was once his, and she honors that history with two of his paintings mounted over the entrance. “It was hard when he passed,” she says of Poteshman’s death in 2014. “I keep his work here, so he’s still part of the studio.”

COLORFUL DIVERSITY

Looking around Hernandez’s studio, one is struck by two things: a preponderance of color,

Artist Maribel Hernandez shapes all of her ceramics by hand. Photo by T Christian Gapen

and many different styles of art. Reds, yellows, blues, greens, oranges — Hernandez paints with a bright and cheerful palette, full of joy and hope. “I took a lot of interior design classes . . . beautifying spaces. For me, it was everything about color,” she says.

In addition to her birds, there are many other ceramics: modern-looking bowls, vases with expressive faces, etc. “For me, clay heals any kind of pain I have,” notes Hernandez, who hand-shapes all her ceramics. “I started making the first ceramic birds three or four years ago. All the sadness I had went into the clay.”

The ceramics are just the tip of a very diverse iceberg. A series of vibrant glass mosaics sit like framed rainbows on a studio table. Handmade earrings and necklaces are everywhere. Paintings — many of which have a connection to her Mexican background — hang on the walls. Scattered around the space are pieces of fabric decorated with graphic designs she transferred to cloth, which she turns into pillows or shawls. There aren’t a lot of art forms Hernandez hasn’t explored.

FACTORY WORKER

Hernandez has been a tenant of Bell Arts Factory since the beginning, noting that, “I was the last artist to come into the last space” when the arts institution first opened in 2006. And as its community manager (along with Rico Mandel) she helps keep Bell Arts’ day-to-day operations running smoothly.

She also taught classes for the Spanish Art Program offered for children at Vita Art Center over the summer — an occupation she found to be immeasurably rewarding. Previously, she taught classes through the Living Love Foundation in Oxnard. “There’s something that I loved about my Spanish art classes,” she says. “I was planting a seed in the little ones. If we plant the seed of art, they won’t be as affected by the bad things in the world.”

CREATIVE MIGRATION

The concept of migration is a powerful one for Hernandez. Her artistic process is always on the move. She describes it as “migrating” through her work, which changes as her imagination takes flight. 

“For me, it’s learning a technique and taking it my own way,” she explains. “I’ll be working on something, and it transforms into something else. It’s always evolving.”

“I’m always finding new ideas,” she adds. “I just keep doing what I love. It’s about being creative in everything you do.”

“My logo used to be a spiral,” Hernandez continues. “It was about infinite creativity.”

But she has a new logo now: a butterfly, a symbol of beauty and metamorphosis. A fitting emblem for the ever-exploring, always-transforming Hernandez. And like the birds, butterflies have wings, too.

The work of Maribel Hernandez will be on exhibit at the Tool Room Gallery at the Bell Arts Factory starting Oct. 6. For more information, visit maribeldesigns.com.

ARTWALK VENTURA 2017

Saturday, Oct. 7, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 8, 12-5 p.m.
A brief guide to Downtown Ventura’s premier art festival. For full schedule, map and more information, visit www.artwalkventura.org.

Shamsia Hassani Reception
Vita Art Center
Thursday, Oct. 5, 6-9 p.m.
The Global Artist of Distinction will open a solo exhibition of her paintings at this special champagne reception.

Maribel Hernandez Reception
Bell Arts Factory
Oct. 6, 6-9 p.m.
An opening reception in celebration of the Artist of Distinction and her very special installation featuring ceramic birds at the Tool Room Gallery.

Shamsia Hassani Painting
California Street
Oct. 7-8
To celebrate ArtWalk, Hassani will create a mobile 8 ft. by 8 ft. canvas panel during the festival.

PODS® Container Galleries
Various locations
Oct. 7-8
These mini, mobile galleries have become a hallmark of the ArtWalk celebration, and can be found scattered throughout Downtown Ventura and the Westide. Hundreds of local and regional artists and galleries will showcase their work.

Bowl Hop
Participating restaurants
Oct. 7-8
Purchase a bowl made by a local artist during ArtWalk and receive a punch card that allows you to visit participating restaurants for samples of their cuisine. Restaurants may be visited during normal business hours on both Saturday and Sunday. Bowls cost $25 and can be purchased at the Bowl Hop tent at California and Main Streets. Note that food will be served in takeout containers, not the bowl itself. All proceeds benefit the Family Reconnection Program.

VC Art Market
Figueroa Plaza and Mission Park
Oct. 7-8
The VC Art Market is Ventura’s first and only outdoor art gallery, with unique, avant garde and one-of-a-kind pieces of all kinds — all made by local artists.

WAV
Oct. 7-8
At least 28 artist studios will be open and in the gallery there will be a show of abstract paintings by Gertrude McCarty Smith, as well as music and live performances. Fifty percent of the show’s net proceeds will benefi the WAV and the Gertrude McCarty Smith Foundation for the Arts.

The Alchemists: Creatives Collective
Stoneworks
Oct. 7-8
The Alchemists are a group of young creatives composed of musicians, dancers, visual artists, poets, writers and performers. There will be a variety of musical genres, including rock, alternative, pop, acoustic, hip-hop, electronic, and jazz. On Saturday there is a 21+ after party at Saloon BBQ Company.

Re-Birth
Art City
Sunday, Oct. 8, 4:30-8 p.m.
The Re-Birth exhibition will open with cocktail hour in the Avant Garden, followed by opening ceremonies in the Art City Gallery.