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An Oasis of Imagination

An Artist Shares His Unusual Vision in a Hollywood Garden

August 11, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

Each day, people pass Jose Luis Hernandez's garden, behind a chain-link fence on a tired strip of Hollywood Boulevard, a mile or so east of the last celebrity star.

Often they pause, perplexed at the smorgasbord of sculptures. Gorillas rub shoulders with Aztec gods, Jesus gazes out at a spaceship, the Virgin Mary stands beside Montezuma's throne and a shark sports a sombrero.

Hernandez putters around the pieces, as his dogs, Canela and Canelita, romp behind him. Some days he plants -- a row of banana trees or a riot of artichokes bursting into purple flower. On other days he arranges his sculptures into theme areas -- grouping the shark next to a marlin and a huge seashell and piling coconuts under a straw canopy to evoke the islands.

On the back fence, behind an Aztec arch, is a small, colorful sign announcing his Jardin Cultural Herencia Del Esplendor Antiguo De America. The grand name, he said, evokes his Mexican roots and the great Aztec and Mayan heritage he wants to celebrate.

"When you don't stay in your country, you make your roots and you feel better," Hernandez said.

Just inside the front entrance, on a small white pedestal, another sign reads, "Welcome to My Garden."

Hernandez has spent half his 71 years, first in Baldwin Park and then in Santa Barbara, ornamenting people's gardens and homes with fountains, balconies, fireplaces and driveways. He has made Buddhas and sphinxes and cherubs. He has covered foam with fiberglass and concrete to create "rock" waterfalls and tall green dinosaurs for parade floats.

He is a short and solid man with silvery hair, white whiskers, gentle brown eyes that tilt downward and a smile that glitters when the sun catches the gold on his front teeth. His strong hands are thick and lined from decades of carving stone and molding cement.

A year ago, Hernandez said, when his body began to ache from the heavy lifting, he moved to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara to retire -- and to share his art with the public. He found the overgrown L-shaped lot, a block west of Western Avenue. The owners, a partnership of investors, said he could rent the space while they tried to find developers to buy it.

To pay the $400 rent, he cashes his Social Security check and takes on the odd garden job. He lives in a metal tool shed in the garden, sleeping on a leather couch beneath a silver disco ball. His living arrangement makes the garden possible, Hernandez said. He showers at a nearby YMCA and often eats at neighborhood restaurants.

"I am a poor man, but I do what I love," he said.

Hernandez is the son and grandson of stone carvers from Sahuayo, a small city in Michoacan, Mexico. He left school after sixth grade. His father and grandfather decorated churches.

In a brown vinyl scrapbook, he keeps photos of his jobs and a well-worn copy of a form letter from President Clinton that he got after he became a U.S. citizen five years ago.

Hernandez has made palm tree planters for race car driver Andy Granatelli. He copied urns from Versailles for one society home and, for another, made a grand fountain of spouting fish that sloped down a hillside toward a pool. In his off time, he became active in city art projects.

"He just has a way of creating atmospheres. He's a wonderful man, and I just wish we still had him in Santa Barbara," said Claudia Bratton, executive director of the Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Celebration, an annual parade. Hernandez was an artist in residence for the parade and helped draw in the city's Latinos, she said.

"Communities that get to experience him are very lucky," said Patrick Davis, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission.

In Los Angeles, Hernandez knows few people. He spent months cleaning out debris on the garden site, but it still contains more weeds than grass, which may be why few wander in. Still, Hernandez is proud.

"Before, it was too dirty, too dangerous here. Now it's culture," he said. "People bring me water, soda. They say, 'You're a good man.' "

In his small shed, he has managed to fit a grandfather clock and a TV to watch Mexican folk dancing, adventure movies and home footage of his garden projects. On tidy shelves, he stores coffee table books about water gardens and the art and folklore of ancient Mexico.

Sometimes, he said, he stays up all night, working on an Aztec head or recreating the design on the top of a Mayan sarcophagus. He dreams of holding festivals in the garden, with dancers in Aztec dress and actors reenacting legends, such as the tragic story of Popocatepetl, the great warrior, and the princess Iztaccihuatl, who died after she heard he had been killed in battle.

On one recent afternoon, Jeff Montez de Oca, who lives nearby on Sunset Boulevard, was pulling his 1-year-old son, Seneca, down Hollywood Boulevard in a red wagon. He said he had been walking along, wishing that there was a park within walking distance, when he stumbled on Hernandez's little haven.

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