The word “prodigy” suggests names such as Beethoven, Mozart and Picasso — men and women of another time and place whose talent surpassed anything normally encountered in daily life. So it may be surprising to consider that such a person might live on Long Island.
Juliana Hernandez seems to be an everyday teenager. At 17, she is a senior at Valley Stream Central High School, where she hopes for a career as a maternity nurse. Yet art flows from this self-taught teenager like streams of water, fresh and vibrant.
“I started drawing when I was really little,” Hernandez said. “I was always sketching. Even when I was young, I was such a perfectionist.” She started painting in watercolors and acrylic at 13, and while her formal education has been limited to a single art class, her painting is assured and the style is her own.
“I didn’t like having to do what someone else said, like we’re all going to draw the same thing in the same way,” she said. “I always wanted to follow my own ideas.”
Hernandez, who has a Brazilian mother and a Guatemalan father, grew up in a multicultural, multilingual household. “I speak Portuguese with my mom, English with my dad and Spanish with my grandma, who lives with us,” she said. It might be confusing for outsiders, she added, “but we all understand each other.”
Twenty of Hernandez’s paintings are currently on display at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City as part of the arts program of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Hernandez had been part of a project at Kennedy Airport, where artists could work in full view of the public. A passerby, Troy Lewis, was immediately taken with her work and wanted to see more. Lewis, who works for a pharmaceutical company, invited Hernandez to a business party, where he introduced her to a contact from the Port Authority. He, in turn, introduced her to Myron Johnson, the director of the P.A.’s arts program.
“Myron told me I’d have to paint 20 paintings in a week” to have enough work for the exhibition, Hernandez said. “Three a day!” The results can be seen through Sept. 29, after which Hernandez hopes to sell her work. She’s received numerous offers already.
“The painting I start is always different from the painting I finish,” she said. “The hardest part is the drawing. The drawing is the foundation for me. After that, I already know how I’m going to do the shading and the colors.”
Hernandez works with swiftness reminiscent of her favorite artist, Pablo Picasso. “I can finish a small painting in about 15 minutes. For a bigger painting, like ‘Three Queens,’ maybe 2½ hours,” she said.
She said she loves Picasso’s variety and originality. “People in his time said he couldn’t really draw, but I think it was because he saw things his own way,” she said. “And he came up with so many new styles, like cubism.” “Guernica,” his great antiwar painting, is her favorite Picasso work. “It might look like a jumble,” she said, “but it’s amazing how it all goes together.”
Hernandez paints women almost exclusively. Of the 20 paintings on display at the Port Authority, 18 are of single women or small groups. Only two contain male figures.
“My aunt was my inspiration for everything,” she said. “She was the first one who really encouraged me. All my paintings are about her in some way — parts of her personality.”
Hernandez seems to work mostly by instinct and intuition. “When I finished ‘Leana,’ I painted it without a hand in front,” she said. “But I knew it needed something more, so I had the idea to add the hand.” The addition gave the painting more balance, she said, but the decision was more experimental than analytical.
She originally painted “Mariposa” (“Butterfly”), without butterflies. “But my mom looked at it and said it needed something; it wasn’t alive. She told me, ‘You’ll figure it out.’” As Juliana was shopping for art supplies, she saw life-sized butterflies made of feathers. Painting over the originals, she glued them to the canvas, and they now appear as if they were an integral part of the original idea.
Sometimes, it is the canvas that lends itself to experimentation. As a frequent visitor to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hernandez mentioned her love of medieval triptychs. “I always wanted to try something like that,” she said. Instead of the traditional vertical panels, however, she painted “Three Queens” on three horizontal canvases and displayed them so that the wall behind is visible between the panels.
The lyrical elegance of “Three Queens” suggests the gentle rhythms of a samba. Hernandez has traveled many times to Brazil, and said she loves the colors and sounds. “Music is always part of my painting,” she said. “In Brazil, art and music are everywhere, and it’s amazing what they can do with such simple materials.”
As for Hernandez’s future, “I love art, and I love medicine,” she said. “I don’t want to choose; I have to do both.” She hopes to train as a maternity nurse, and currently volunteers at Northwell Health’s Manhasset hospital. “I got to shadow an anesthesiologist last summer, and it was incredible,” she recalled. “They even let me scrub in and watch a procedure.”
Her plan is to attend Nassau Community College for two years to finish her general education requirements before transferring to a four-year school for her nursing certificate.
For now, Hernandez spends her days as an Advanced Placement student and treats her bedroom as her workshop. “Everything I do, I do in my small room,” she says. “My mom always complains. It’s a mess!”
Her paintings can be seen on the Ninth Avenue side of the Port Authority Bus Terminal through Sept. 29. To view
her paintings online, go to www.jujuartvibes.com/.