Every once in a while you meet someone who changes your life just by being who he is. Ponchatoula folk artist Bill Hemmerling had that effect on me — and thousands of others. Bill died last Monday at the age of 66 after a courageous battle against cancer. He left behind an astounding body of work for someone who started painting just six years ago — and who never had an art lesson in his life.
One of the many gifts God gave Bill was his ability to look at the world and see things not as we see them, according to our definition of "reality," but rather as they really are, as seen through the eyes of a uniquely talented artist. Bill's eyes were always filled with childlike innocence and wonder, and his paintings opened to the rest of us not only his great big heart, but also his beautiful interpretation of the world as he saw it. His was a world filled with quirkiness, humor, spirituality, music, pure joy, faith and, above all, a deep and abiding love of all he saw around him. No one could look at a Hemmerling painting and not be moved. And no one who ever met Bill was left unchanged by the encounter.
Bill led a simple life, but his paintings revealed a deep and complex understanding of human emotions and struggles. His favorite subject was an often-faceless black woman-child whom he called Sweet Olive. He painted her over and over in many settings, often evoking old Southern and/or spiritual themes. It took a lot of courage for a white guy born in Chicago to paint Southern black women that way, but Bill did it with such integrity and sensitivity that he was lauded by the African-American Heritage Museum in Aurora, Ill., "for his tireless effort of presenting a body of work with honor and dignity."
In a city and state where black and white people seem to know so little about one another, Bill Hemmerling opened a window into people's souls.
Bill clung to no material possessions, even after his art brought him great fame and considerable fortune in his later years. He was a humble and deeply spiritual man who always called himself a painter — never an "artist." He loved to share the story of the day he said he met Jesus — at the Cafe Du Monde. When he returned home to Ponchatoula later that day and told his aunt about meeting Jesus, she cautioned him, "Now, Bill, this is Ponchatoula. You be careful who you tell about things like that."
Thankfully, Bill did not take her advice. Instead, he painted and wrote often of his religious experiences. I think his favorite was a work that proclaimed: "One day when I let God out of the box I built, he danced with me."
Bill was equal parts Forrest Gump, Clementine Hunter and Gandhi. After working 35 years for Sears and then getting laid off, he thought his life was over. But his forced retirement turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. At the age of 59, Bill began his career as a folk artist. He used whatever brushes and paint he could find, and he painted on whatever discarded materials he could scrape up. Most of all, Bill painted with his heart.
A fundamental honesty infuses all of Bill's works. It's no wonder that another great Louisiana artist, George Rodrigue, called him "probably the truest, most classic folk artist to come along in the last 50 years."
Here's what Bill said about himself: "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."
So long, Bill. I hope you and God are still dancing.