Juan Hernandez is a talented artist whose work celebrates history’s titans of social justice, ranging from John Brown and Frederick Douglass to Pedro Albizu Campos, Angela Davis, and female Zapatista fighters wearing balaclavas.
Through his striking paintings, Juan also attempts to give voice to the marginalized and maligned. One such work, an eight-inch watercolor titled City of Widows, features an old woman in India shunned by her community simply for outliving her deceased husband.
“There is actually a city called the ‘City of Widows’ where they are forced to live in. This is a story everyone should look into and see the bias being done,” reads a caption on his Instagram account, where some of his pieces are displayed.
On Saturday, April 2, Juan will have his first solo art show at the Angelica Kauffman Gallery in Chicago, which showcases miniature masterpieces in a 12x12x12-inch “micro gallery,” complete with tiny furniture, drinks, snacks, and other accoutrements. The Angelica Kauffman Gallery will be featuring Juan’s micro art on its Instagram throughout the following week.
When he isn’t creating out of pure inspiration, Juan receives commissions to do portraits of people or their pets, which provide him with a healthy, fulfilling, and much-needed diversion—because since 2000, Juan Hernandez has been an inmate in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).
Juan recently spoke with Latino Rebels by phone recording, through the help of Mai Tran, a communications associate with the Bronx Defenders, a public defender office in the South Bronx.
Tran discovered Juan’s work through the Facebook page for Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist group that advocates for LGBT inmates and those living with HIV. The group also runs a pen pal program, through which Tran first commissioned a portrait from Juan and the two became fast friends.
“I picked up painting as a necessity,” Juan told Latino Rebels. “To live in prison and not become a state baby, someone who is always going to the chow hall and eating the slop they serve, one has to have money, which I did not. So I decided to pick up a prison hustle or trade, and I gravitated towards art.”
“I’d seen prison artists creating holiday cards, crafting jewelry boxes out of cardboard, etching designs on mirrors, painting on t-shirts, drawing portraits and painting on canvas,” he recalled. “They each had their own little enterprise going on, and I figured I could do the same.”
Juan started at the age of 17 with just a pen, tracing cartoons out of a coloring book he borrowed from an inmate who made greeting cards and sold them for $2 apiece as part of his hustle. Then he met another inmate who sold portraits for $100 apiece and upwards, and Juan saw dollars signs. When his mom sent him money, Juan bought a 12-set of Reeves pencils from the commissary and spent a summer honing his portrait skills by using faces in magazines as references.
Eventually his fellow inmates noticed his talent, and he started getting requests.
“As other prisoners commissioned me for drawings of portraits, I’d ask for commissary items as payment, which kept me out of poverty,” he said.
By his estimate, the work he did with those first 12 pencils earned him at least $2,000.
In 1999, at the age of 16, Juan was arrested and convicted of murder. He’s vague on the details; as with most 39-year-olds, he doesn’t like talking about the mistakes he made in his youth.
At the time, Juan was working at a convenience store —one “that sold toys, food, cigarettes”— in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where he was born and raised.
“I was working for somebody, an adult man who was my boss, and got in an altercation, and I ended up using a knife and stabbing him and he died,” he said. “The state tried to say that I robbed him, but I wasn’t in need of money. My mom had just forced me to work there. The man was always getting high, (and) we got in a fight over something stupid.”
Juan was sentenced to 45 years in prison, which is now illegal in Illinois after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that sending a minor to prison for 40-plus years amounts to a life sentence, thus violating his or her Eighth Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Mai says Juan is one of dozens of inmates in Illinois who received 40-plus-year sentences and are now up for resentencing.
He remembers when his father died of a heart attack when Juan was still in first grade. Left to raise Juan and his brother on her own, Juan’s mother, a Mexican immigrant, found work and went on welfare.
“I remember she worked 10 hours a day of hard labor at a food manufacturing factory, and I can now say she did a great job because I never went to bed hungry or (walked around with) bummy shoes or clothes,” Juan said. “She herself lost both parents at a really young age while in Mexico and was raised by her older siblings until she made enough money enough to migrate to the U.S., where she met my father, fell in love, and got married.”
Juan describes his early childhood in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Pilsen as “normal,” but that all changed when he turned 12. On his 12th birthday, as he tells it, he was walking to the library when a group of kids stopped him and asked which gang he ran with.
“These kids were all my age, maybe a couple years older,” Juan recalled, “but I could tell in their demeanor that they had been consumed by violence and were waiting to unleash it on me.”
The kids left him alone when he convinced them that he was unaffiliated. But when he arrived at the library, accompanied by two female friends, he heard what sounded like firecrackers.
“When I turned in the direction of the noise, I saw a man with a bandana covering his face on the opposite side of the street in an alley behind a church, pointing a gun in our direction and shooting at us,” Juan said. “I immediately grabbed the girls and shielded them until he took off running.
“That day I learned I had to be wary of what colors I wore when walking past certain streets.”
“Gang infested” is how Juan describes the Pilsen of his youth, saying “there were about six major gangs” and “about 10 minor gangs” engaged in pointless acts of violence.
“To me it seemed like they had nothing better to do, and they stayed on their block and bothered people because it was all they were good at,” Juan said. “And they were really good at it because they bothered the hell out of me.”
Juan says he lived in constant fear beginning from the time he was in 7th grade—though it wasn’t always the gangeros that made him fearful.
“As a matter of fact,” he explained, “the first person to ever point a gun at me was a cop.”
According to Juan, he was nine years and he and his friends had opened a fire hydrant—standard practice on a hot Chicago day— when the cops showed up.
“Eventually, living in fear and constant violence drove me to one unthinkable act, where I now stand, serving a 45-year sentence for murder,” he said.
Juan has been in custody since the age of 16, beginning with juvenile detention.
On his 17th birthday, they transferred him to the nation’s largest single-site jail, Cook County, sitting on 96 acres and housing around 7500 inmates on any given day. Al Capone spent time there, as did Larry Hoover and John Wayne Gacy, and the jail is so infamous that a lot of locals refer to it simply by its main intersection, “26th and Cali.”
After spending a few months there, they transferred Juan to the equally notorious Stateville, a maximum-security prison in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. It was at Stateville, Juan says, that he began drawing.
“They had a pretty good art selection,” he recalled. “Little by little, I built up my art supplies to own paintbrushes, acrylic paint, oil paint, pastels, charcoals and colored pencils. Some prisons I went to would make me destroy whatever art supplies they didn’t sell in their commissary and consider it contraband, while others had no art supplies in (the) commissary. …Others would allow me to order from a store called ‘Dick Blick.'”
Juan is mostly self-taught, refining his work by looking at what other artists did, though he gives credit to the late artist, educator, and community organizer, Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, who made weekly visits to Stateville “and inspired us with her presence.”
“Art has changed my life,” said Juan. “When I first came to prison I was a 17-year-old hothead, always going to segregation. I was full of fear, anger, and resentment. I had no goals or path in life, but art changed all that.
“Initially, art was my hustle, a way to get my necessities, but someway down the road I found that I could spend hours on end sitting down and drawing,” Juan explained. “That first summer I spent drawing, I went without a disciplinary report or going to the hole. Art occupied my life to the point where it changed my daily schedule, way of thinking, and behavior. I could be feeling mad, sad, or depressed, and instead of bottling it up and building a pressure bomb, I’m now able to feed off these emotions and paint a picture with them.”
Juan says every prison he’s been in has taught him a new approach to his work.
“For example, most maximum-security prisons I’ve been in don’t even have a chair or tabletop in order to draw on, so I’d be forced to work while on my bunk or sitting on my property box,” he explained. “The dangers in the environment also have to be taken into consideration. For example, guards who may not take a liking to you may search your cell and purposely destroy your art or art supplies, and all I can do is write a grievance, which will eventually be rendered moot by another of the officer’s coworkers. This has happened to me before, and it definitely discourages you from starting a new piece of art.”
Juan says he’s even been shot while in the act of creating. He was drawing near a catwalk when a CO fired a warning shot to break up a fight between two inmates.
“Pellets ricocheted into my cell and hit me,” he said. “Luckily it wasn’t life-threatening, but from then on, every time I’m drawing by my bars and the catwalk officer passes by, I stop and look at him until he walks past.”
Juan is now incarcerated at the medium-security prison in Dixon, a quiet town in Northern Illinois where Ronald Reagan grew up, and says his new home is more conducive to artistic creation.
“We have day rooms, and I’m able to sit down in a chair in front of a table and prop up my homemade easel,” he explained. “It’s the best situation for an artist I can think of, besides the fact that this prison offers no art supplies in (the) inmate commissary besides four tubes of acrylic paint. What can someone do with acrylic paint if they don’t have any paintbrushes or canvases?”
The lack of supplies forces Juan to be highly selective in his undertakings.
“I’m real picky on what I choose to draw or paint unless I’m being paid for it,” he explained. “When I do a portrait and post it on IG, it’s usually of someone I’ve read about that has made an impact in the way I think or feel. Right now I’m currently drawing a portrait of Assata Shakur on 14×17-inch vellum Bristol paper. I only
have three more of these sheets left, and when they are gone, they’re gone!”
Given the constraints, Juan describes having to create micro art for his solo show at the Angelica Kauffman Gallery as “a perfect fit”—it was his friend Tran who saw the call for submissions on the Chicago Artists Coalition website and passed along the information in November.
Each piece will be on sale for $30 and can be purchased by DM’ing Juan through Instagram.
“I didn’t have to use much materials and still be able to bring to light these amazing people who gave their lives for the struggle,” he said. “The only real problem I had was I’d never done micro art before. That night I went to my cell and got paper I had saved up and started cutting all of it into 4×4 inches. I remember my cellmate asking what I was doing as I cut all these tiny squares and rectangles, and I told him I was going to draw a portrait on one of these. And his response was you can’t do a portrait that small. His negative response surprised me, and I used that as inspiration.
“That night I drew a portrait of a random Instagram model on a 2×2-inch paper and told my cellmate I can do anything. And we both started laughing.”
“People who are incarcerated are invisible to those of us on the outside. Why not make some of those folks more visible?” the gallery’s curator, Elaine Luther, told Latino Rebels. “That’s a great use for art.”
Luther admits she was “initially hesitant” to showcase artwork by Juan, a convicted murderer, fearing “negative reactions.” Talking to family members and fellow artists, however, allayed her fears.
“Everyone was very positive about the idea,” she recalled. “One person said, ‘Spending your time in prison making art seems like a pretty good way to spend your time.'”
Tran explains how hard it is for Juan to do his work and improve his skills as an inmate, as art classes are normally available only to inmates with shorter sentences, and art programs are typically available in facilities closer to cities with pools of volunteers to draw from.
“Program availability is also at the whims of wardens and other IDOC staff,” adds Tran.
As for Juan, he credits art with not only changing his mentality and earning him some much-needed dough, but also connecting him with new friends outside the prison walls.
“I’ve also met these amazing people who’ve helped me along the way in achieving unthinkable things like being in art shows, being published, and even being interviewed, which is a new experience for me,” he said. “I love what I do and love bringing joy to others through my art. I gained self-esteem, which is the Holy Grail to me, and I’m ready for whatever comes next in my life.”