Who better than Buddha himself to tell a forlorn Little Leaguer — or a hypercompetitive parent — that it’s not whether you win or lose that counts but how you play the game?
That wasn’t artist Ron Hernandez’s agenda when he painted the Awakened One’s portrait in a gentle palette of airbrushed hues on the side of a Burlington Electric Department storage building. But a sudden reminder of the bigger picture may be what some people experience as they pull away from Burlington’s Calahan Park and head west down Locust Street toward Pine — that is, if they can get past the question “WTF?”
The mural has covered the entire east-facing side of the red brick building at the Locust-Pine Street intersection since 2004. That’s when Hernandez approached BED with his proposal to prettify the utility’s ugly outbuilding with something more in keeping with the South End’s artsy, peace-loving vibe. According to Hernandez, BED had no problem with the idea so long as the mural didn’t convey a strong message. “I was fine with that,” Hernandez says. “I didn’t think it needed to be a big deal.”
The artist’s inspiration, however, was a big deal: the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I just wanted people to think,” Hernandez says. “Buddha’s basic message was ‘Nothing is perfect, but you do the best you can.’” The artist points to Buddha’s eyes — slightly lopsided — as an illustration of the point. “It just conveys peace. I’m not out to change anybody’s lives,” he adds.
Nor was Hernandez out to promote a particular religion. His own faith, he says, is mainly connected to old Mother Earth. Buddha did strike him, though, as the most peaceful of the familiar religious icons, and one who fit the shape of his “canvas.” “The building is perfect for a face,” he says. “It just calls out, ‘Hey!’”
Or is that “Om”?
For a year, BED and Buddha coexisted in harmony, but in 2005, Hernandez’s addition to the building’s north wall generated resistance — though not the kind that can be measured in ohms. Hernandez had adorned that side of the building with a tsunami of flowers crashing on images of war, such as barbed wire, guns and armed soldiers. “That kind of got squashed,” he recalls. “I guess one of [BED’s] biggest customers at the time was General Electric, just around the corner. They didn’t like me dissing the profit-making war.”
The late Peter Freyne chronicled the censorship in his “Inside Track” column in Seven Days. In Freyne’s dispatch, BED general manager Barbara Grimes is quoted as saying the decision to make Hernandez alter his imagery originated in a complaint from an unspecified “ratepayer.” Her own reported assessment of the wave mural: “inappropriate.”
Hernandez, as if drawing inspiration from his east-looking subject, obliged without much fuss, although he admits he was “upset” about having to change his work. “I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, because that’s not my nature,” he says. “I just painted over it.” Today, the north wall features a wave of flowers descending on planet Earth, itself seemingly encircled by a hurricane. The south wall depicts a similar wave. If the building were Buddha’s head, the wave crests would form his ears.
Hernandez’s Buddha may surprise some passersby, but his works are already fixtures of Vermont’s public spaces. He created the panoramic mural “Pan of the Seasons” on the ceiling of Main Street Landing’s third floor and murals for various other businesses and institutions, including the University of Vermont and the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier. An especially popular mural depicting an array of endangered species graces a wall of the Burlington Skinny Pancake on Lake Street.
Hernandez’s admirers even include the elementary-school set, though they may not recognize his handiwork in the themed scenery at Pizza Putt in South Burlington, including the outer-space images done in black-light paint in the laser-tag room. Tourists who get a chuckle out of the sculpture of Champ, the Lake Champlain monster, standing sentry by the King Street ferry dock can thank Hernandez for the creature’s gleaming green scales. A graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts, the artist has displayed his work as far afield as Panama and Key West, Fla.
Select pieces that Hernandez created in the 1960s and ’70s were on display at the Skinny Pancake all last month. On July 31, they left to make way for an exhibit of his new work. Check it out through August, or browse a virtual gallery of his art at airbrushron.com.
When he’s not making art on-site or in his Battery Street studio, Hernandez bolsters his swords-into-plowshares cred by tilling the land at Stray Cat Flower Farm, the Intervale flower farm owned by his wife, Diana Doll. “There’s a lot of color in our lives,” he says.
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