You wouldn’t necessarily guess that the subject matter for a bright and vibrant young artist with a contagious positive attitude would be death. Yet for Brianna L. Hernández, the experience of losing her mother to cancer five and a half years ago and being her caretaker in her final year profoundly affected her emotionally and artistically. “I was learning about my own grief and also others’ grief,” she explains, “I needed to find healing through my art since my experience is not unique, especially with cancer. I wanted to have a more accessible conversation around death, a catharsis for those who have already gone through it but also to create a space of education and conversation for those who haven’t.” Grief is both a personal experience and a communal one so Hernández communicates via her individual artistic tune while striking a responsive chord with others.
Her exhibits at the Arts Center at Duck Creek in East Hampton and currently at the Long Island Museum for the SOMOS exhibit showcase her earth-based caskets, urns and shrouds, an artistic and magical green interpretation of the traditional funeral home offerings. She incorporates moss, soap, sand, seaweed and beeswax. The incredibly peaceful setting in nature where the Arts Center hosts both musical and artistic exhibitions in traditional barns only added to the contemplative experience. Safe space is key.
This project titled Aquí Descansamos honors the dead while creating space to imagine a future where we rest alongside them, an opportunity for empowerment. “I know we live in a death and grief averse society which is one reason I want the pieces to be beautiful and ease the social taboo,” she explains, “A grave doesn’t need to be a concrete slab.”
Green burial is actually an evolving and popular alternative to elaborate caskets, using materials that are organic, biodegradable and ephemeral. Hernández makes her funerial creations with reinforced cardboard and natural materials to be more personal and imaginative such as The Fairy Garden with purple reindeer moss and shitake mushroom accents. The wonderful whimsical realm of fairy tales which soothed our fears as children comes full circle to reassure us as adults. Reactions to the work have ranged the gamut. “Some are drawn to the beauty of the material and find it welcoming. Some get really emotional but appreciate it from afar. And other people are really taken aback and apprehensive.” The reactions explore the fear of what is one of the most common experiences which we all ultimately face in others and ourselves.
Hernández credits her late mother Sylvia with always encouraging her artistic talents and education. She grew up between Texas and Wisconsin where her family did migrant work then earned her undergraduate degree from Columbia College in Chicago and masters from Kendall School of Art and Design in Michigan. “I thought I was going to be a painter, but then I ended up making soap urns,” she says with a laugh, “I embrace the changes in my artistic path.” The East End is a relatively new home for her, and being around both artists she studied and admired as well as their legacy is an inspiration. She also works as Director of Curation and Board Secretary at Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation and as Assistant Curator at the Parrish Art Museum.
She embraces the local artistic community which makes her feel, “warm and cared for” and for those opportunities she enjoys and creates for other artists. “It feels very dynamic with a lot of forward movement.” Because, of course, the other end of understanding death is to embrace the day and live.