Campus mural reflects GCU alum's winding passage

Artist and GCU graduate Ruben Hernandez works on a mural he is painting in the lobby of the Antelope Reception Center.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso

GCU News Bureau

Ruben Hernandez steps back from his mural to see the big picture – the dark river gorge and sun coloring the sky above.

He takes measure of it all.

“I dropped out my junior year of high school, got into some trouble and had to do community service,” Hernandez said.

He ran the streets, partying and tagging graffiti, until he saw the light. Over the next decade, he began to paint a different picture for his life.

Now he stands before a 16-foot-by-14-foot wall of his creation in Grand Canyon University’s Antelope Reception Center (ARC) lobby, a mural of the Grand Canyon that he painted throughout November.

“It’s all about coming full circle,” said the GCU alumnus, hired to bring his vibrant art to the ARC when it opened in 2020. “I started in this community not knowing what I wanted to do or where I fit in.

Ruben Hernandez poses before his finished mural.

“God has brought me here to paint the Grand Canyon at Grand Canyon University. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be an artist and do this for a living and find purpose in it.

“It has the words ‘GCU. Find your purpose,’ because to me this is it.”

Hernandez is a muralist with his own business, Maryvale Arts, launched in 2019 after he graduated from GCU two years earlier with a degree in entrepreneurial studies. That seemed like a long shot not that long ago.

After his family immigrated from Mexico, he grew up near GCU’s campus with flagging hopes. His mom worked two jobs, one cleaning offices that he would help her with on weekends.

“I felt a lot of discouragement. I just felt like there was nothing more for me because I didn’t have permanent status at the time,” he said of dropping out of high school at 16. “I figured I could do some kind of job or trade. It was wasted time, really, hanging out with friends.”

Hernandez always liked watching Bob Ross on PBS, the easy way he showed how art made him so happy. He began to experiment with graffiti, but that street life led to trouble.

His mother told him he would end up in jail if he continued his path. They prayed together. “If you are real,” he prayed to God, “prove it to me.”

Hernandez was sentenced to community service for his legal troubles and was assigned to a church. It was the first time he had set foot in one. He read 2 Corinthians 6, “… In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you," and felt both the signs from God and the encouragement and support of people in a church that has since disbanded.

Artist Ruben Hernandez mixes colors to combine the vibrancy of his street art with the subtle methods of his art school training.

“They told me I did have a purpose, that I did matter and that no matter how many roadblocks you face, you can do something you enjoy doing,” he said.

He knew he needed to get back to school. An English teacher at West Phoenix High School saw his excellent doodles in a notebook and helped him get a scholarship to Scottsdale Artists’ School.

There, he learned about different styles and media with a formal education in the arts. He previously had enjoyed after-school TV and the wild life on the streets; now he saw masters make a career of it. He said they showed him that art can give him clarity and focus.

“I discovered a form of communication,” he said. “I learned we can speak the language, and art school refined my skills to be able to communicate. I can control the messages I share with the world – positive and uplifting.”

Hernandez wanted to return to the community he loves and do it for a living.

“People from the rest of the Valley sometimes look down on it, consider it a ghetto. But that’s the community I grew up around and, yeah, there is a lot of bad stuff, but it has some of the most humble, hardworking people who love people and love community,” he said.

Hernandez enrolled at GCU to learn the business side of his dream.

At GCU, he would decompress in Thunderground, a student hangout. He saw art on the walls and convinced management to give him a crack at it. He painted most of the art that still grace its walls today. (He also met his future wife there.)

Hernandez used his degree quickly, setting up his own business and landing a contract with the city of Surprise to refurbish a desert-scape mural. The anxiety of wondering if he could make the business work started to fade. He did a mural for the Scottsdale Gun Club, and other jobs came in for businesses, including one downtown he will work on in January, he said.

Ruben Hernandez said he often had to step back to consider the full impact of his work.

During that time, Keaton Edwards came into the picture. The ARC operations manager has loved the beauty of Arizona as an avid mountain biker, and the white walls of the new building where prospective students come to take campus tours didn’t match the colorful nature of the state and the vibrant campus.

A mural along the east wall flanking the entrance could add color and life, Edwards said. Who better to do it than a GCU graduate who embodies the University’s spirit of community, beauty, energy and purpose?

“He is an incredible young man, and it’s awesome to see him as an alumnus painting a mural that will be seen by thousands of prospective students,” he said. “He’s out there painting and my staff loves him; they all gravitate toward him. He answers their questions about his painting and techniques.”

Edwards emerges from his nearby office just to stare at the painting – the sun on the water, the reds off the rocks, the deep reflections of the bluffs on the water.

Hernandez paints dark colors and midtones, steps back to see it against all the light and approaches the wall like fitting puzzle pieces into place. He’s re-creating a feeling for one of the planet’s wonders he visited as a child.

“As a believer, it’s amazing that it’s God’s work, God’s masterwork,” he said. “To re-create a form of that is amazing. That’s what it’s about, highlighting the creation of God. We are all His masterpieces, and he has shaped me to be an artist, and I can use my skills to create something positive.”

By November’s end, he had mixed the vibrant colors of his urban graffiti days with the subtleness and traditional art he learned to create a University centerpiece.

“To have my artwork here is a dream come true,” he said. “I used to tag the streets around here as a kid. Wow, I’m still doing art on the walls, but now it’s from a different perspective. I’m doing it from a place of purpose and not one of seeking attention and approval.

“I do it out of love and appreciation for the gifts that God has given me.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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Bible Verse

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 
Romans 8:28