About Bill

Test content: borrowed from nola.com; see link at end of article.

In 2002, Bill Hemmerling, a retired window dresser for Sears & Roebuck, was living the life of a reclusive pauper in a back-a-town shack in the sticks of Tangipahoa Parish.

As recalled by Carol Siekkinen, who would soon become his closest friend and agent, Hemmerling walked into the Louisiana Furniture and Art Gallery in Ponchatoula one day out of desperation and announced: "You know, I did the decorations at Sears and I think you need more color on your walls."

Show us what you've got, the gallery proprietors said, and Hemmerling went on to produce a series of rudimentary yet captivating portraits of rural African American rituals and religion, using discarded house paint on pieces of wood he found during his walks around town.

It was the beginning of a brief, prolific and meteoric art career that saw Hemmerling's work travel a course from a small town gallery to a fixture at Jazz Fest to Art Expo New York to hanging alongside paintings by Salvador Dali and Fernando Botero just two weeks ago in an exposition in the Dominican Republic.

Producing paintings at a rate of one a day, sometimes faster, he left behind a massive body of work and a legion of fans and collectors who could be called nothing less than devout.Hemmerling died Tuesday morning in Ponchatoula after a long bout with colon cancer. He was 66 and left no immediate family behind.

"It's almost like a fairy tale story; where he came from and where he got to," Siekkinen said Tuesday. "The spirituality that people got from his paintings and got from him had the power to change lives."

Indeed, dozens of comments attesting to this point flowed onto Hemmerling's website from well-wishers around the world in his final weeks. "How fortunate I have been to sit and talk with you and listen as you talk to others," wrote Connie Burns. "Something about your words, thoughts, art and the words on your paintings is so soothing, so nurturing and mindful of the pace we should all follow in life."

And what a life. It was as curious as his artwork.

Born in Chicago, he relocated to his mother's hometown of Ponchatoula as a young man and began life as a journeyman decorator for Sears, traveling from store to store across Louisiana and Mississippi. Though the job required an artistic temperament, Hemmerling had never painted a picture until after he retired and went looking for a way to make a living.

Naive and innocent are the terms most friends and collectors hung on his work, but it fit his lifestyle as well. For instance, it turns out Hemmerling wasn't really broke when he walked into the Ponchatoula gallery in 2002. The fact was, he had a retirement account built up from three decades at Sears but his ignorance of how to use a PIN number and a touch-tone phone left the account unaccessed for years, Siekkinen said.

Such an innocent's view of the world is also what informed his painting style and made for its appeal. Landscapes and colors are flat, people are faceless, clothing is antiquated and actions are simple. Over and over he painted a young black woman he called "Sweet Olive," who would become his signature subject in the way that the Blue Dog defines fellow Louisiana artist George Rodrigue. But there was no rivalry between the two Southern folk art titans. Rodrigue, in fact, was a huge fan of Hemmerling."He had never used a computer, never owned a credit card, never even ate at a fast food restaurant until recently," she said. "It's hard to imagine that he worked at Sears all those years and still managed to stay so sheltered from the world. Anyone who knew him would say he was very childlike - possessing the innocence of a child."

"Hemmerling is a pure artist," Rodrigue raved in 2005, upon the debut of Hemmerling's official Jazz Fest poster that year, featuring jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. "He paints from his heart, from his soul, he really paints what he feels....He has no boundaries. I think he's a free spirit. He's real sincere about himself. And the paintings are honest and straightforward. It's beautiful art."

Through it all, Hemmerling remained quiet, simple, centered. Even as his paintings soared in value - they began at $75 in 2002 and currently reach up to $20,000 now - he continued to use recycled house paint and found objects as his predominant media. His few acknowledgements of fortune were a beloved Cadillac and a move out of his old shack in Pontchatoula into a warehouse/studio complex next to the Louisiana Furniture & Art Gallery.

As for his fascination with Southern African American culture - Hemmerling was white - it appears to have blossomed from a life in the country, simply watching the people around him.

"He just painted what he saw in life," Siekinnen said. "He painted what was in his heart. He thought African American women were beautiful. And he thought his paintings were a way to bridge the gap between the races."

Whatever they were, they sold furiously. Business at the gallery in Ponchatoula was always brisk and Hemmerling opened a second gallery in New Orleans last year, on Magazine Street, but he rarely made it across the lake to visit. It's impossible to tell where his career would have gone from there had the cancer not taken him down hard in recent months.

His final show was last month at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. High rollers from the international art world swarmed the premises buying works by renown greats. Unable to attend, Hemmerling savored the dispatches.

"It wasn't until his last weeks that he felt he made it," Siekkinen said. "He hung with the Big Guys in Santo Domingo. He hung with Dali and Botero. They were men of great fame. This was something special for a man who never considered himself an "artist" but, simply, a painter."

Bill died June 15, 2009.

original article at Nola.com