Great Explorations — Glenn Hernandez ’02

Man in blue jacket sitting on left railing of bridge.
Artist and illustrator Glenn Hernandez at the Botanic Garden in Berkeley. Hernandez earned his Bachelor’s in Studio Art from St. Olaf College. (Frederic Neema/Polaris)

In a way, every single pixel in the virtual reality game Luna belongs to Glenn Hernandez. As the game’s art director, he was responsible for crafting the overarching look for the fantastical game in which a character named Bird enters and navigates a mysterious world.

Artists work, Luna, an owl flies toward bridge. At a glance, Luna is pure children’s book whimsy, filled with rich colors and geometric designs. It is complex, beautiful, and utterly irresistible. But there is also a hint of darkness and melancholy in its otherwise spectacular landscapes.

Hernandez spent countless hours crafting the feel of the world. He spent years developing thousands of sketches and paintings, he built prototypes with the 3D software, and he helped direct others on the game’s team to create the larger reality from his vision. Reviewers have called the game “gorgeous,” and “[a] standout.”

In creating Bird, a character who travels to an alternate dimension, solves a series of celestial puzzles, and ultimately returns to its previous world, it’s not hard to see the parallels between Hernandez and the Bird he brought to life. Hernandez is someone who has made an unexpected journey in to an unfamiliar world, who has challenged himself to learn and grow, and who has found a way to bring everything he’s learned from his explorations to visual stories that hit very close to home.

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Hernandez had admittedly modest beginnings. He was born to immigrant parents who made their way to California from Guatemala before he was born. Neither had more than a sixth-grade education. Once, his father was deported on an immigration roundup on his way to work, when Hernandez’s sister was just a toddler. After significant complications, Hernandez’s father was ultimately able to return to the United States. Today, both of Hernandez’s parents are U.S. citizens.

The couple worked tirelessly to build a better life for their children — Drawing of owl in tree looking down at smaller bird. but it was rarely easy. “After the bills were paid and the food and clothes were bought, they were often left with just $10 between them,” Hernandez recalls of his family’s limited means. “But they never once relied on government assistance. And they always encouraged me to pursue what I loved — not what society deemed most practical.”

Hernandez had always been drawn to both music and fine art. He’d been drawing as long as he could remember, creating sketches of King Kong after visiting Universal Studios as a child, for example. And at his high school in Nevada City, an old gold-mining town near Lake Tahoe, he was a standout choral singer.

While there were plenty of great colleges that he could have attended closer to home, the choral director at Hernandez’s school talked up St. Olaf’s music programs. When it came time for Hernandez to look at schools, St. Olaf climbed to the top of the list.

After arriving as a student on the Hill, the pull of the visual arts became even stronger for Hernandez. Janis Hardy, associate professor emerita of music, voice, says that Hernandez brought discipline and curiosity to all of his work. “He was a serious person, always questioning, always striving to learn and improve,” she recalls. “He had an exceptional voice, [but] it became clear that art was his true calling.”

Hernandez decided to major in studio art, trying everything the major offered and pulling in the ideas from other courses as he developed his artistic voice. “What St. Olaf taught me was to be interested in a lot of different subjects: religion, psychology, performance music, art — it was such a well-rounded experience,” he says.

Painting of a quetzal perched on branch in jungle, the national bird of Guatemala.

Like many young alumni, Hernandez was ready to make his mark on the world the second he tossed his cap at graduation.

But the world had other plans. “My parents and I, we all had this idea that when you get out of college, you’re going to be super successful because you have that degree,” he says. “But the reality is that while [people in college] can point you in the right direction, a lot of that success is up to you.”

He landed a retail job at Wet Paint, an art supply store in St. Paul, Minnesota. If it was not the job he dreamed of while he was at St. Olaf, he realized it was an important training ground nonetheless. “I learned a lot about materials, and I became the resident pen and ink expert,” he says. But he knew he wouldn’t be there forever.

He returned to California, determined to find a new path for his artistic side. It was a challenging time, especially as the economy started to tailspin. He worked at another art supply store, spent some time living back at home with his parents, and struggled to figure out his next steps.

Painting of a stream flowing through woodlands. Eventually, he saw opportunity in the burgeoning animation field. He landed a job as a lab technician at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, taking illustration courses and working on his own projects as his schedule allowed. At the same time, he furthered his technical skills in stop-motion animation by helping other students with their projects. Art directing a couple of graduate stop-motion projects set him on the path towards concept art for animation and games.

One longtime collaborator, stop-motion artist Jim Capobianco, says Hernandez’s uncompromising, singular vision makes him invaluable on a team. “Glenn is focused on quality and originality,” he says. “He does tons of research and then has wonderful ideas that come out of that research. He isn’t trying to copy what others are doing but instead finds his own voice.” Adds Chris Sasaki, an art director at Pixar and former instructor of Hernandez’s, “Glenn applies a timeless sensibility to fresh concepts. He has a natural ability to bring history and personal experiences to his whimsical graphic compositions and characters. He has a craftsman’s eye for detail and subtlety.”

Each animation project helped Hernandez see his path more clearly. He built a toolbox of skills, knowledge, and processes. And eventually, he realized what was missing was not another technical capability or course: it was the narrative. He needed to knit together the beautiful visuals he created with something that made them meaningful. “I realized that what I liked was the idea of visual storytelling,” he says. “It had always been a part of who I was — it had just revealed itself to me slowly.”

But finding the place where he could use those skills wasn’t easy. Hernandez interviewed at Pixar and other top companies, but nothing panned out. So he decided to pursue a one-in-a-million strategy. He had long been impressed with the indie video game Journey for PlayStation 3. The game, in which players travel to a distant mountain, had earned numerous Game of the Year honors. He decided to send a cold email to Journey’s producer, Robin Hunicke, to see if she might be interested in working together.

Painting of a dragon breathing fire on a town.
Many of Hernandez’s personal drawings and paintings, including The Fall of Smaug (above) depict scenes from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings books.

To his delight, she wrote back almost immediately. “She told me the idea of Luna,” Hernandez recalls. “I did a couple of very rudimentary concept paintings, and from that point on, we’ve been working together.” He joined her company, Funomena (pronounced “phenomena”), as a concept artist in 2013.

Hernandez’s new job demanded intense research, and he closely studied the works of many artists as he developed the aesthetics for the virtual reality game that would become Luna. Among his inspirations were Mary Blair, a Disney animator who did concept art for Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland, and Lee Bontecou, an artist best known for her abstract sculptures and drawings.

Hernandez also spent months developing the backstories of the game’s characters. Then, with those ideas in his head, he set to work creating a magical interactive fable: Owl persuades Bird to swallow up a piece of the moon, which knocks Bird into an alternate world. Only through exploring the new world, and solving a series of puzzles and riddles, can Bird make its way home.

“I’ve taken to recording every story my parents tell me about their childhood in Guatamala. Their immigrant experience greatly influences the stories I tell.”

It was one thing to develop the concept for Luna. Turning that concept and related sketches into a virtual reality game required a Herculean four-year effort, which culminated in its October release. Virtual reality is just beginning to get traction in the gaming world, and Luna is a seductively beautiful introduction to it.

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Hernandez enjoys working in the world of virtual reality, but he says he’s fascinated by any art form that allows for storytelling, whether through advanced technology or simpler tools, like clay or pencil. “To me, they are all just tools,” he says. “A concept for a game might just as easily be communicated in a poem, a short story, or a song.”

Indeed, his spectacularly popular Instagram account helps showcase his multimedia fascination. It’s attracted some 10,000 followers, who gobble up his pen-and-ink sketches, watercolor paintings, and even clever pumpkin carvings.

Painting of a child and polar bear looking at fish in the sea. The account is also home to fragments of his most recent fascinations and stories. Even as he worked on Luna, he kept busy with his own projects. “I started to come up with spec work for myself,” he says. “I might say, ‘Here’s a book idea that I have. I want to start to write it out and illustrate it,’ and then go through the process of making a book on my own, and do the work.”

He dreamed that he might one day land a publisher for his ideas, but visits to editors at industry conferences fizzled. “If someone you’re trying to work with is not excited about what you have to bring forth, it’s not worth trying to convince them,” he says. “It’s better to keep doing your own work until someone sees it and wants to work with you — someone who sees that you have something new to bring.”

That someone turned out to be an editor from Penguin Random House named Anna Membrino. In September 2016, she sent Hernandez an email asking if he was interested in children’s books. He couldn’t say yes fast enough.

“I was completely arrested by his style,” says Membrino, who adds that it’s easy to fall in love with Hernandez’s work. “He has a fabulous sense of color, movement, and humor, and his shapes and lines are at once unique and perfectly suited to the world of children’s books.” Penguin Random House signed him to a two-book deal, with his books coming out in the spring and summer of 2019.

As Hernandez mined his memories and experiences to come up with stories that he could tell in clear and irresistible ways to kids, he kept circling back not just to his own stories but to his family’s history. The tales of their immigration felt freighted with importance and meaning in ways he may not have fully recognized before. “I have been thinking a lot about how people build walls around themselves: they isolate themselves from other people and other ideas,” he says.

Painting of hills and mountains overlooking a body of water. Out of those musings grew a story about a bricklayer who gets exasperated when a neighboring tortoise comes to play in his garden. Hoping to keep out the pesky visitor, the bricklayer builds a wall, isolating himself in more ways than he can imagine.

In an era infused with the rhetoric of building walls, Hernandez knows that people will see the story as something more than just a tale of a bricklayer and a visitor, or even a more general allegory about the importance of openness to others. “These days, I’ve taken to recording every story my parents tell me about their childhood in Guatemala,” he says. “Their immigrant experience greatly influences the stories I tell, and I hope to add their voices.”

There’s something both unlikely and essential in Hernandez’s journey. The gift his parents gave him — the blessing to choose his own path, wherever it might take him — ultimately led him back to his family. He uses every tool he’s picked up along the way to tell their stories, and ultimately his own story, in the most compelling and beautiful ways.

By Erin Peterson, a Minneapolis freelance writer and a regular contributor to St. Olaf Magazine.

Man standing in the middle of the woods.

Art on Instagram

Glenn Hernandez admits he came late to the social media scene. He credits his wife, Vanessa, “a source of unyielding support during the more uncertain points in the last seven years,” for keeping him grounded and focused on what’s important. “I didn’t grow up with the social media stuff,” he says. “It was my wife who told me to try it.” He did, and quickly found fans. More than 1,400 posts have attracted 10,000 followers to his page, which you can find at @glenndergarten.