Works of a world-renowned Ponchatoula visual artist are returning home today.
The art studio that housed the works of the late Bill Hemmerling on Royal Street in New Orleans is relocating to Southwest Railroad Avenue near the Revival Art House in Ponchatoula and reopening as the Hemmerling-Kalle Studio.
“Due to COVID-19, there is not a tourist in sight in New Orleans,” curator Carol Siekkinen told the Daily Star Friday. “Tourism is a driving force in the French Quarter and without it, we are unable to pay the high rates. Since we already owned this building in Ponchatoula, we felt it would be fitting to relocate the studio as a homecoming for Bill’s work.”
The studio is in a former warehouse that is over 100 years old. It also served as a space Hemmerling used for creating his masterpieces, she said.
The studio has seven rooms and will feature three artists, she said. In addition to featuring original art by Hemmerling, the studio will feature works by Siekkinen’s son Kalle, Hemmerling’s protege, and Kyp Hayes, a Southern cultural artist.
A red house on the site was the childhood home of Hemmerling. Siekkinen said the home is currently just a shell, but she has hopes of turning it into a restaurant after the studio raises enough funds. A donation box for visitors will be placed at the front desk, she said.
“Bill had a style that was really unique, and he used all recycled material,” Siekkinen said. “He was featured seven times for the Strawberry Fest poster and was also featured for Jazz Fest several times. He was very popular at Jazz Fest and was one of their top sellers in history.”
Siekken said Hemmerling’s work was sold everywhere around the country and abroad and pieces sold at auctions for over $20,000. She said it was common for him to create a work in the morning and have it sold by the afternoon.
Hemmerling’s work focused on Southern folk culture and one of his goals in his artwork was to honor African-American women, Siekkinen said.
“He always said that he wanted to lift American-American women up because they have not gotten a fair shake in our history,” she said. “Everything he did was about honor and respect.”
Hemmerling’s work has been featured in the Royal Street studio for 11 years and in the O Street Museum near DuPont Circle in Washington D.C., she said.
“It was amazing what he was able to do,” Siekkinen said. “He was on the autistic spectrum and sounded childlike when he spoke. He wandered into our family’s furniture store back in 2002 and said he needed something to do. He never painted before, but we let him use a space in our store where he taught himself and developed his technique.”
Seven years after he began painting, Hemmerling died of colon cancer at the age of 66 in 2009.
Siekken said Hemmerling’s funeral was a “who’s who” in New Orleans culture and it ended with a jazz march that led to Cafe Du Monde.
“He was friends with the owner of Cafe Du Monde, and he would visit Bill in Ponchatoula and give us free coffee,” Siekkinen recalled.
The studio will be open to visitors on Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., she said.