Fernandez, who trained as a painter and graduated from the Pacific Northwest College of Art, creates art that focuses on photorealistic scenes of inanimate objects such as a group of chairs, a solitary ketchup bottle or an apartment building fractured by shadows and light.
After graduating from art school, Fernandez pursued a career at St. Mary’s following encouragement from his wife.
“She suggested that I try social work as a way of both making a living and learning something interesting,” says Fernandez.
After a brief stint working in a youth homeless shelter, Fernandez took a job at St. Mary’s Home for Boys in late 2000. St. Mary’s operates both residential and day-treatment programs for at-risk 10-18-year-olds from around Oregon.
Working his way through the school’s many departments for nearly 14 years, Fernandez now serves as assistant manager of the day-treatment program, which aims to prepare students for successful entry or re-entry into the public school system.
“[For] the guys in the day treatment program, it’s public school that’s always been the problem for them,” says Fernandez. “They could just never fit in and they could never get along because … they have all these strikes against them coming in.”
The students in the day-treatment program noticed that Fernandez was constantly doodling on pieces of paper. Fernandez’s habit piqued their curiosity.
“A lot of the time you’re just monitoring while the guys do their own thing,” says Fernandez. “Inevitably, with … a clipboard and paper, I’m just sketching and drawing and doodling all the time. So that, of course, attracted attention.”
During their free time, students began talking to Fernandez about his drawings. Fernandez says that some of the boys would say, “I wanna do that” or “Oh, I got drawings, can I show you my drawings?”
“And of course I’d be like, ‘Yeah, let’s check them out,’” Fernandez recalls. “So we’d have these little reviews of their portfolio.”
Suddenly, Fernandez had taken on an additional role: artistic mentor.
“Of course, it always started with ‘How do I get better at drawing … an eyeball or a nose or a face,’” Fernandez remembers. “Then I would give them a tutorial and work them through it, and then it morphed into [an] actual Sketch Club.”
The Sketch Club started meeting once or twice a week, but expanded to four or five days in order to meet student interest. Offered during recreational choice time, the Club has a loyal following of boys who opt to draw rather than play sports or video games. The Club provides the boys with artistic instruction, as well as a quiet place to pursue their talent.
Lynda Walker, St. Mary’s director of development, sees the Club’s positive effects. “The boys arrive with many labels, mostly negative,” she explains. “But boys in Sketch Club soon are starting to think of themselves as ‘artists.’ They begin to feel a sense of pride in their artwork, along with improved self-esteem.”
Boosting self-esteem is crucial in ensuring the boys’ return to public school is successful.
“What you really see is, these guys, they stick with it, they come to Sketch Club every day, and they follow my advice, and they end up seeing that they obviously are above average in their drawing skills for kids their age,” says Fernandez. “Then they just feel really good about it.”
Gabe Fernandez will be profiled during the upcoming season of Oregon Art Beat.