Francisco Hernandez ushers guests into the tiny living room of his modest White Center apartment.
He shows off what looks like a large, colorful painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Close up, you can see it’s not a painting; Hernandez has rendered the Virgin in thousands of tiny glass beads.
Beading as an art form is called chaquira in Hernandez’ native Mexico. Normally you see beaded jewelry or clothing, not a Catholic icon like the Virgin.
But there's not much that's "normal" about Francisco Hernandez' path to this art form.
Hernandez came to the Seattle area more than a decade ago from his native Jalisco. There, he worked in a meat processing plant to support his family. He had neither the time nor the money to make art.
That changed when he arrived in the U.S.
Hernandez works in construction now, laying tile floors or putting up sheetrock. He doesn’t make a fortune, but he’s able to support himself, send money home to his family, and buy the supplies he needs for his art.
He and his brother share the tiny three room apartment. A flat screen television fills the bedroom; the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its vibrant colored beads, dominates the living room.
Hernandez started work on his Virgin about three years ago. He was living alone then, and had nothing but time on his hands after a day on the job site. He decided to try chaquira. Because he’s Catholic, he thought he’d re-create the religious image in beads.
Hernandez had no formal art instruction. He learned by trial and error how to thread the appropriately-colored beads onto a plastic filament, then how to glue each string of beads in place to make the Virgin’s patterned skirt, or yellow outer garments.
So far, he’s devoted more than 1,600 hours to this artwork, and he’s not quite done. He explains, through an interpreter, that he’d like to sell his Virgin. Hernandez will let the buyer determine what kind of background he makes.
He has no idea what to charge, though. Hernandez earns about $30 an hour working in construction; he doesn’t think his art is less valuable, but says he can’t realistically charge somebody $48,000 for a beaded image.
Hernandez says next time he won't need quite as many hours to finish a beaded portrait. Over the past three years, he's figured out techniques to make things go more quickly. And he's excited to dive into something new.
Someday Francisco Hernandez will return to his family in Jalisco, but not anytime soon. In Seattle he’s found a job that supports his family, and the art that sustains his soul.
Video produced by Bond Huberman.