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Paintings from Spirit: The Hemmerling Art Gallery in New Orleans

william hemmerling artist new orleans

There is an artist who has a gallery in the French Quarter who I consider to be one of the most spiritual of artists. I first came across William Hemerling at the Jazz Fest years ago when not many people had heard about him.

He painted what’s called folk art on found materials and I was struck by something unique that none of that other artists had at the Fest. That something was heart, a spirit that seemed to shine forth from his paintings of what seemed like silhoettes of young black girls wearing white dresses with nothing but an outline of lips to denote the face and words and sayings printed right on the painting itself offering wisdom and solace and inspiration.

It seemed that this artist took his cue from no one or nothing but the spirit that moved in him and his desire to express his heart and to touch the hearts of others. I remember being moved to tears by one painting that showed an old black woman with the words inscribed beneath the portrait “if I could only hear my mother pray again.”

There was something so deep and sad and so much longing in it that it affected me to the point of tears. I don’t think I have ever been moved to tears by a painting. I have been by music though. And that is something that his paintings are in a sense — music. Beautiful music, playful music, profound and deep music.

Although some would call this primitive art there is nothing primitive about it. His paintings reflect the hand of a true classical artist in my view. Someone with an extraordinary natural talent that burst forth after he had retired from setting windows at Sears Roebuck for decades. It was almost as if some spirit moved him and that spirit actually did the painting.

Every year at Jazz Fest I would get on over to his display where I would meet the artist himself and just find myself lost in his images. One particular painting stands out now as I am writing this… it is of three black silhouettes in white dresses pushing shovels into the ground with the words at the bottom “Hearts of Gold.”

It seems that it reflects that black experience of people working the land who have nothing, few if any worldly possessions but in a sense have everything because the carry their spiritual connection to the land the earth and to themselves and their people.

What I think is undeniable is an indescribable otherness to this painting and to all of his paintings that somehow reaches into the heart and just won’t let go.

If someone were to ask me who is my favorite artist I would have to say Hemmerling for although he only painted a short while, he passed away from cancer a couple years ago, he gave us a good number of remarkable works. The richness with which he painted and the gift that he gave to us here in the deep South is immeasurable.

Last year they opened up a gallery at 733 Royal St. in the French Quarter where you can go and see Hemmerling works for yourself and even meet his talented young protege Kalle, an artist in his own right, who helps run the place. I wish now that way back when I had been so impressed by Hemmerling I had bought one of his originals when they were inexpensive and could have bought it from the artist himself.

Posted in New Orleans Art.

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