We sat down with artist Liz Hernández to talk about her work Mi permiso secreto (My secret permission) (2022), featured in Crafting Radicality: Bay Area Artists from the Svane Gift. Here, she shares how she overcame doubts about an art career, what the Bay Area means to her, and why it’s important to stay true to who you are.
Sarai Montes: Can you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming a professional artist?
Liz Hernández: I was born and I lived in Mexico until I was 20. The idea of being an artist there is very different. Opportunities are very limited, and it is a path that’s more complicated. I didn’t have my family’s support. I found industrial design, a way to still be learning different materials and techniques that could be applied to making an object.
I started making art after I graduated, when I was able to do it in my free time after work or during the weekends. I felt this freedom that I didn’t feel during college. With the help of my friends who were also artists, we created this community that fostered having an art practice on our own terms.
Liz Hernández in her studio. Photograph courtesy of pt.2 Gallery
SM: When you were growing up in Mexico City, what relationship did you have to art?
LH: In Mexico City, there are so many museums. Whether you’re talking about a huge archeology collection, modern art, or darker subjects like the Inquisition, but also little things, like a museum for toys, or a museum about the postal service. Anything could have its museum. It could be the size of a room; it could be someone’s house. So I had the idea of art being things that exist in your everyday life.
SM: Did you (or those around you) ever have doubts about choosing art as your career? How did you overcome them?
LH: I was constantly told not to do it, not even pursue it. During my college days, I convinced myself I didn’t want to be an artist. I told myself it was more profitable to be a designer.
When I was in Mexico City in 2009, there was this huge boom of industrial design, where people wanted to merge the world of design with traditional craft practices. But when I came to San Francisco, the boom of tech was so big that I was discouraged to try to merge these two things. My teachers would tell me, “Just make an app.” I was discouraged constantly, by teachers, by family, and even by myself.
But the moment after I graduated, and I had this diploma, I felt free. I just did it myself, because I didn’t have anything to lose.
Liz Hernández, Mi permiso secreto (My secret permission), 2022. Clay, gold leaf, and vinyl paint on canvas, 72 x 60 1/2 in. (182.88 x 153.67 cm). Museum purchase, a gift of The Svane Family Foundation, 2022.26.28
SM: How did you come up with the idea for Mi permiso secreto (My secret permission)?
We live in an era where we are constantly being asked to expose ourselves, to make ourselves understandable, to be public and share everything. That is a lot of pressure for someone.
With the piece, I was trying to have that gaze that was applied to me back. I don’t want to share my deepest secrets, my most vulnerable moments, my dreams, the things that I care about, so publicly. It was limiting, and I didn’t want to be limited. I wanted to be free. That’s what art does to me. It allows me to be free.
SM: How did your work end up in the Museums’ collection?
My gallery, pt.2 in Oakland, showed it at FOG, which is an art fair in San Francisco. Thanks to the Svane gift, it was acquired, gifted to the museum.
I knew it was being acquired a few days after the art fair opened, and I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t really think much about the piece. Sometimes you have pieces where you work really hard, and they go unnoticed. This one that was more a personal moment for me had this impact. It felt nice to know that if you stay true to what you want to say, someone might notice.
Liz Hernández working on Mi permiso secreto (My secret permission). Photograph courtesy of pt.2 Gallery
SM: Why do you feel it’s important to have works by local artists in local museums?
LH: It’s important for museums to work with living artists that are here in the city, in the Bay, because support here is super limited compared to other cities. Our arts ecosystem is smaller. Sometimes I have conversations about how challenging it is to live here.
If we think about the Bay having this vibrant arts ecosystem, we should also support the people who make it happen. If not, don’t be surprised when no one’s here, and you’re like, “What happened to the artists?”
SM: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
LH: My advice is to stay true to who you are. In this world, that’s one of the hardest things you can do because we’re so well connected. As artists, we’re very sensitive, vulnerable people that might see something on social media or the internet and think that we should be doing that thing. Never try to do something you see someone else doing because that’s not true to yourself.
SM: What does the Bay Area mean to you?
LH: The Bay Area was the first place that allowed me to think that having a career in art was possible simply because I had people around me who were supportive and who showed up. It was also a place where I felt I could say anything. I never thought about me as not being able to do it because of where I come from, because I’m a woman. I always felt welcomed. I hope that continues to be the case, where the Bay Area welcomes everyone who has something to say.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.