So Long, Bill Hemmerling

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Internationally acclaimed Louisiana folk artist William Hemmerling, who painted the 2005 Jazz Fest poster and was a perennial favorite of Jazz Fest art aficionados, died on Monday, June 15, at his home, surrounded by loving friends, after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 66.

Born April 15, 1943, in Chicago, Bill lived all of his adult life in Ponchatoula, La. He led a simple life devoid of material trappings even after his art brought him great fame and considerable fortune. Those who knew Bill and his unique artistic interpretations of southern life and culture could not help but love him and his work. He was a humble and deeply spiritual painter — he eschewed the title “artist” — who often evoked religious themes in the heartfelt words that adorned much of his art. He fondly recalled the day he met Jesus — at the Café du Monde in the Vieux Carré — and he later painted and wrote of his religious experiences, “One day when I let God out of the box I built, he danced with me.” Renowned Louisiana Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue, one of Bill’s many collectors, called him “probably the truest, most classic folk artist to come along in the last 50 years.”

I met Bill at the gallery in Ponchatoula that now bears his name back in 2003. He had shown his work at the Jazz Fest that year. His paintings were so genuine, and his persona so honest, that he became an instant hit. My wife and I were privileged not only to be able to buy several of his original paintings but also to have become Bill’s friends. I can honestly say that I have never met anyone like Bill Hemmerling.

Equal parts Forrest Gump, Clementine Hunter and Gandhi, Bill was the only man I’ve ever known who completely detached himself from the material world. He worked 35 years for Sears stores across Louisiana as an arranger of floor and shelf displays. When Sears laid him off, he thought his life was over. Turns out his forced retirement from Sears was the best thing that could have happened to him. At the age of 59, he began his career as a primitive folk artist. He never had an art lesson in his life.

“One day as I was seeking a way to make money, I jogged past The Louisiana Furniture Gallery in Ponchatoula,” Bill recalled later. “I have always thought of myself as a painter even though I had never painted to sell. As an old hippie, I used to paint on rocks. When I approached the furniture gallery, I found that it was a non-profit organization and represented furniture craftsmen from Louisiana who made custom-built furniture. I knew then that my art would be an enhancement to the furniture gallery, so I joined the association of furniture artists.

“My first creations were painted in an attempt to please someone, to paint what was trendy or popular, using decorator friendly colors, all framed and under glass. I soon realized that I probably would not be able to afford paint supplies and framing. One day I found an old piece of wood as I jogged along the railroad track. The wood became my canvas and I painted with old house paint. I got excited about thinking outside of the box and began to paint from my heart, from my experiences and things that pleased me. It was then that I realized that, ‘One day when I let God out of the box I built, he danced with me.’ Pleasing yourself is rewarding, you never have to worry about disappointing someone. Being around people who care about me in a gallery setting has brought pleasure and inspiration beyond words. Our world has been enlarged by customers who have become friends.”

Bill was the son of the late Lillian Connaughton of Covington and the late Maurice Hemmerling of Chicago, Illinois. He is was preceded in death by his brother, the late Robert Hemmerling. He leaves behind scores of friends and thousands of admirers and collectors.

In 2009, Bill was successfully represented at ART EXPO in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and FI-ART in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He has been honored by the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Northshore Regional Endowment for the Arts, and the African-American Heritage Museum in Aurora, Illinois, which praised “Brother Hemmerling for his tireless effort of presenting a body of work with honor and dignity.” In addition to creating the 2005 New Orleans Jazz Fest poster, Bill also was the poster artist for the 2008 and the 2009 Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula.

A big part of Bill’s spirituality was his love of flowers and plants. In his final days, he oversaw creation of a prayer garden and pond behind his studio, which he named the Sweet Olive Prayer Garden in honor of his most famous and prolific series of paintings — a southern black woman-child whom he depicted in many positive aspects of southern life. One of his greatest honors was the knowledge that African-American artists appreciated and loved his innocent and heartfelt portrayals of blacks in the South. Before his death, he asked that his funeral services be a celebration of his life, and that any plants sent in his honor be planted in the Sweet Olive Prayer Garden. The house next door will become the Hemmerling Museum. (Anyone who wishes to send flowers to Bill’s prayer garden can send them to the Hemmerling Gallery of New Orleans, 3932 Magazine St. They will be transplanted in the Sweet Olive Prayer Garden after the funeral.)

Visitation will be from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday at the Hemmerling Gallery, 3932 Magazine St., New Orleans. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 411 N. Rampart St., New Orleans. Thanks to the Jazz Fest, and per Bill’s wishes, there will be a Jazz Funeral procession from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to Café du Monde for complimentary coffee and beignets. A graveside service will be held at 4:00 p.m. at the Ponchatoula Cemetery on Hwy 22 in Ponchatoula. Tharp-Sontheimer-Tharp Funeral Home, 1600 N. Causeway Blvd., Metairie, is in charge of arrangements.

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