Laguna Beach artist Nicholas Hernandez didn't start sculpting until he was 46, but it didn't take long for him to get noticed.
Almost 10 years later, in 2001 he was creating artwork for former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. The framed sculpture of their daughter, aptly titled "Chelsea," now hangs in the Clinton's New York home, Hernandez said.
Now 65, Hernandez celebrated the unveiling of his sculpture at Chapman University on Feb. 25. A friend of Presidential Fellow Ruebén Martinez, Hernandez was introduced to Chapman during a special chancellor's art exhibit in October. Shortly afterward he was commissioned by Chapman President Jim Doti to create a sculpture named "Emergence," which now sits in university's Escalette Plaza in Orange.
However, Hernandez is no stranger to recognition.
In 2008, he won the Lorenzo il Magnifico de Medici award at the Florence Biennale international art fair in Italy, which he describes as "the Olympics of art." Hernandez represented the United States among 890 artists — 160 of whom were sculptors — from 72 countries.
The self-proclaimed hippie who grew up in Santa Ana came to Laguna in the late '60s after spending time in San Francisco.
"I always loved Laguna," he said. "I was thinking I want to live in Laguna, but what will I do?"
The only practical career Hernandez had known was plumbing construction, a trade he learned from his father.
He walked into Sound Spectrum, the iconic music store on South Coast Highway, hoping to make friends and find some work. They said they needed a faucet fixed.
Then the work just kept coming.
More than 20 years later, Hernandez was introduced to sculpting by Thomas Richard Garcia, who was known as one of the best artists in the city, Hernandez said.
"I was just mystified by his art," he said. "I remember one day a light bulb just went off. I went to him and asked, 'Would you teach me to carve?'"
Garcia taught Hernandez the basics and the former construction worker became obsessed.
"With the very first strike I had an epiphany," he said. "Right that instant I knew I'd do it for the rest of my life."
Hernandez believes Laguna had a big role to play in introducing him to his calling.
"Being around all the artists turned me into an artist," he said. "Laguna does that to people."
Hernandez's studio shows off his ability to juggle multiple projects. Wooden sculptures, the forms that eventually become casts, lean up against walls and tools are meticulously lined up on top of a long wooden table. A large cut-out photo of Ruebén Martinez is propped up behind a clay bust, which is slowly starting to resemble the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, who is about to have a building in his name at Chapman.
Hernandez is working on the bust with Richard Jones, another local artist.
The new Chapman projects have the artist, who is also a grandfather, feeling on the cusp of an exciting place in his career.
"It's so funny. At 65 it's like I have a new life again, a new start," he said.
During the interview, Hernandez carved on the bust while chatting, making side remarks about parts to remove or rake down.
"I have a renewed inspiration," he said. "I'm carving with new confidence now."
Besides his works at Chapman, Hernandez is excited about a project that's taken him across the globe. Hernandez is currently working in China on a sculpture, which will organically fuse with a burl (tree growth). He picked out the tree in China, where they are accustomed to working with burl.
He's planning to head back there in March, where he will consult and make necessary changes. He's already receiving calls about doing shows in Beijing.
"I'm going to break through the top levels of the art world with my work in China," he said.
Hernandez is also planning to attend the Florence Biennale in December.