August 20, 2019

Camp Hess Kramer Fire Inspired His Art

Sergio Hernández finished his painting on Camp Hess Kramer during the fires in less than a week. Photo by Diane Hernández

As artist Sergio Hernández watched TV news coverage of the Woolsey Fire last November, he felt devastated. His emotions changed, however, when he saw a picture from the grounds of Camp Hess Kramer. 

“There was a quick shot of one of the hills surrounding Hess Kramer, and I could see the menorah that was still up,” said Hernández, 70. “It inspired me. It gave me that feeling of, although the fire swept through there, this place would be born again.”

Hernández already had a 50- by 60-inch canvas prepped for another project, but he went straight to his studio and began working on an oil painting of the summer camp’s menorah on the hilltop surrounded by the barren, smoldering landscape left behind by the raging fire. 

“I needed to express my feelings,” he said. “When I saw the menorah still standing after the fire, I knew exactly what I needed to paint. It kind of just flowed out of me. It took me less than a week to finish the piece.” 

Hernández plans to give the painting to Hess Kramer to either keep or raffle off. He hopes the camp can use it to raise funds to rebuild its site.

“I feel very strongly that the camp should come to life again and do those good things it’s been doing for students for many years,” he said. 

“When I saw the menorah still standing after the fire, I knew exactly what I needed to paint. It kind of just flowed out of me. It took me less than a week to finish the piece.” — Sergio Hernández

Although not Jewish, Hernández has a direct connection to Camp Hess Kramer. For the past five years, he and his wife, Diane, have spoken about art and activism at the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference (CYLC), which has been held at the camp. The three-day event, created by artist and activist Sal Castro in 1963, is designed for Chicano/Latino high school students, primarily from disadvantaged areas in and around Los Angeles. 

Hernández said he feels a special connection to the Jewish community.

“My mother was raised in Boyle Heights and she always had an affinity for the Jewish people,” he said. “She would tell me stories about growing up and all the [Jewish] people she knew. My two granddaughters are half Jewish and half Chicano. Now I have that blood connection.

Hernández is also the creator of the “Arnie & Porfi” cartoon strip that looks at social issues through a child’s eye. He currently publishes his cartoons in several periodicals and on social media. 

“[Students] are very interested in my cartoons, because some of them are funny but they all have a message,” he said. “They can see my point with the least amount of words. It’s good for them to be able to see these things.”

Sergio Hernández in his studio. Photo by Jose Garcia

Hernández was also one of the original staff members at the Chicano historical social-political magazine “Con Safos” in the late 1960s. “I wanted [the CYLC students] to know they had a great history, especially in the arts, especially coming from Mexico,” he said. “There are great muralists in Mexico who got their political message across to the masses by painting.”

Known as “Los Grandes” (the greats), these revered Mexican muralists included Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, who came to prominence during the Mexican revolution of 1910.

“These artists were innovators,” Hernández said. “Siqueiros used automotive paints and compressed air in his murals. Rivera painted frescos, not a new technique, but he revived it. The three of them believed in public art for the masses. [They took] their social and political ideas to the common people. We do the same thing now, only we use cartoons. Plus, there are a lot of murals going up in Los Angeles, as well.”

The message behind his painting of the Camp Hess Kramer menorah, he said, is to encourage people facing adversity to persevere in overcoming it. 

“That’s what the menorah on the mountainside meant to me,” he said. “That if these people, all people, continue to strive toward a goal, there’s nothing that will stop them – not fire, not hate, not racism, not any of those things.”