Dominating the foyer of Evansville artist Billy Hedel’s Downtown home is a mosaic tile table. Hedel created it recently, and when asked about it he’ll demonstrate that the mosaic top is not attached to the legs that support it — it’s just being used as a table until he can decide which wall to hang it on. His home is the only Downtown building in Evansville that is zoned as both a residence and a gallery, offering a unique-to-Evansville artist live-work space.
Hedel and his studio manager, Tom Loesch Jr., moved into the house in late 2005, when they relocated to Evansville from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city. The community-minded pair stayed a full seven days after the storm hit to assist elderly and needy neighbors before finding refuge in Evansville, where Loesch is from. (He graduated from Harrison High School in 1975.)
Licensed tour guides and owners of Daddy Long Legs Tours, the two history lovers found everything they were looking for in a home at 916 S.E. Sixth St., near the river and historic Downtown neighborhoods. Built circa 1890, it was free from city historic preservation restrictions, although they obeyed the guidelines anyway during renovation. Evansville preservation officer Dennis Au and his wife, Marcia, became quick friends to Hedel and Loesch, helping them discover the home’s history during its restoration and renovation.
The first floor was in excellent condition and required mainly restoration, but the upper floor called for extensive renovation. By September 2006, Hedel and Loesch had transformed the raw attic into a bright, spacious studio, where Hedel’s inspirations are now transformed into expressive art. His distinctive, whimsical pen drawings of Downtown Evansville structures — often accented with watercolor paints — are featured on notecards and posters, as well as on the “Washington Avenue Historic District: A Walking Tour and Primer of Fine Architecture in Evansville” brochure. Working in several art forms, Hedel also paints, creates wire sculptures, and makes clay models. His most characteristic technique is with acrylic paints. “The reason it takes him almost as long to make an acrylic painting as it does to make an oil painting is that he layers and layers and layers,” says Loesch. “It gives (the paintings) a depth you don’t usually see with acrylic.”
Hedel and Loesch became involved in the Haynie’s Corner Arts District, which was part of their inspiration to get the zoning to create an official artist live-work space. They can now legally sell artwork from their home and offer shows and opportunities to area artists. Here, Hedel talks about his inspiration and community involvement.
How does Evansville suit your passion for history?
We want to focus on the wonderful assets this city has. We have so many beautiful historic buildings, and not only Downtown. Everybody thinks of Southeast First Street and Riverside but then you look at Washington Avenue and Downtown. There are some of the finest collections of Art Deco buildings in the Midwest right here in Evansville. You just have to look and notice.
What’s one of your favorite ways to explore a community’s history?
Cemeteries. You can go to a cemetery and get a feel for a city or town by the history of the people who are buried there. It’s all right there in one single spot. Like Oak Hill Cemetery: you have Evans buried there, who was the founder of Evansville. And all these wonderful people that made Evansville the city that it is. It’s all right there.
In just a few years, you have become deeply invested in the Evansville community. What’s motivated that?
We’ve always been very strong believers about giving back and not being greedy and trying to give to our community in any way we can. Not always financially; we’ve not always had the money to do things financially. But you can use your spirit, your mind, and creativity to show and lead others in that way.
You’ve been involved in many community projects, including conducting an art workshop with Montessori children. How was that?
It was my favorite. I was teaching them what happens when you mix yellow with red (you get orange), just basic color wheel stuff. I got a big canvas and put it on the floor with a tarp. And then they got all their brushes and paints and just started mixing colors and made a huge abstract painting for their schoolroom. It was just magical — their smiles and their faces and their giggling.
What was your first experience with art?
There was a butcher shop around the corner from where we lived that would give us these big sheets of butcher paper to draw on, so one day I decided to go in my parents’ and grandmother’s closets and push all the clothes back. I started with a little tight drawing. Then I drew all these volcanoes and dinosaurs and trees and palm trees — you know, typical boy stuff. Then I moved the clothes back. Most people never paint their closets; they’ll paint everything else and the closets are usually left. So when my parents decided to move, they were moving all the clothes out, and here I am, now in college, and I get this call from my mom: “Guess what we found? We found all these great drawings of yours.” And I asked, “Where, Mom?” She replied, “In the closets. On the closets. On the shelves. On the ceiling. I don’t know how you got away with this for 15 years.”
The studio is open by appointment only, save for special events, such as the Art Explosion Tour on Sept. 21-23, featuring guest artists’ work in the galleries. Call 812-303-4722.