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'If you met Joel, you never forgot him': Friends remember Moorhead artist Joel Hegerle

Joel Hegerle's work was a reflection of the artist, always active, colorful, curious and fun.

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Joel Hegerle plays with one of his assemblages at the Spirit Room.
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MOORHEAD — Joel Hegerle’s neon sculptures lit up a number of regional galleries over the last three decades, but it was his personality that brightened up any room, friends say.

The Moorhead artist is being remembered for his creativity, kindness, enthusiasm, curiosity and unwavering support after he died on July 18. He was 72.

“To say Joel was one-of-a-kind would be an understatement,” says Chris Orth, of Fireline Neon Co. , a younger artist inspired and nurtured by Hegerle. “He was far-out in all the best ways, kind and generous. He was an artist, always. To me, he was a fellow neonist, an artist mentor and dear friend.”

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Joel Hegerle with one of his neon sculptures at the Plains Art Museum.
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“He’ll be remembered as an important artist in the region. He was such a great friend to everyone in our art community,” says Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator of the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum.

Rutter says Hegerle was encouraging to both himself and fellow longtime Rourke exhibition coordinator Cameron Peterson, not only for their work at the Rourke, but also as young artists.

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“Joel was always ready to offer support and advice,” Rutter says.

Hegerle was a fixture at the Rourke for half a century, showing work in the museum’s annual Midwestern Invitational Exhibition for the last 49 years. Before this year’s opening on June 18, Hegerle donated his first major sculpture to the museum, in part because the organization’s founder, James O’Rourke, helped Hegerle enter the piece in a prestigious show in 1970.

This year, Hegerle co-judged the Midwestern with longtime friend Susan Morrissey and created medallions for the exhibit's winners. His family says he took the assignments as a great honor.

He would often fondly recall O’Rourke being supportive in his early years and called him and other elder artists he knew, like Charles Beck , “Mister,” as a sign of reverence.

A native of Fergus Falls, Hegerle quickly became part of the local art scene while attending Minnesota State University Moorhead starting in 1969.

Inspired by Claes Oldenburg’s colorful sculptures and Jasper Johns’ flag paintings, Hegerle soon developed his own style, creating and painting found object sculptures and assemblages.

“He’s always had a different vision,” says Spider Johnk, who got to know Hegerle at MSUM. Their group of friends included fellow artists Deane Colin Fay, Dwight Williams, Dennis Terhark and Dave Wallace.

“He found these treasures no one else would see. He had an original approach to everything he did,” Johnk says.

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A piece of work by Joel Hegerle.
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“When I was in college, I was bolting things to cheese boxes, things like that, using a lot of found art. Now I’m having fun using layers of color, but there are a lot of different things in my assemblages,” Hegerle told The Forum in a 1982 story about his exhibit, “The Fish Show,” at the old Rourke Art Gallery.

Fish and fowl were often parts of his pieces — he was integral to the Spirit Room’s biennial Great Winter Crow Show — as were references to Americana. The artist started working with neon light in the 1990s, but still worked in crows and fish, like a neon swordfish in the Rourke’s permanent collection.

Hegerle’s work is also in the Plains Art Museum and was prominently displayed in the HoDo.

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Joel Hegerle's neon sculpture hung above the bar at the HoDo.
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Mexican iconography and ephemera started appearing in his work later as he spent parts of the year in Mexico. He combined a drive-thru intercom from McDonald's with milagros — Mexican charms — in front of a golden pair of glowing neon arches to create a shrinelike piece, “Welcome to Milagros.”

“His radar was always open and looking for a special thing to incorporate into his art,” says his son, Luke.

His work was a reflection of the artist, always active, colorful, curious and fun. While there was a playful element to his pieces, there were also some references to his past issues with alcoholism. While he may have used bottle caps or cans in his art, Hegerle took his recovery seriously and in April celebrated 30 years of sobriety.

The support he showed toward artists was also given to those he met in recovery. Over the years he served as a sponsor to more than 10 individuals. One of those was John Campbell, who after hearing Hegerle speak at a couple of meetings 14 years ago, asked the artist to be his sponsor. The two remained close and Campbell bought one of Hegerle’s works at his last solo show in 2015 at the HoDo.

Campbell says recovery helped Hegerle become “boldly honest” in meetings and in the rest of the artist’s life, and he encouraged Campbell to be the same way.

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“Sober but not somber and definitely not dull,” Orth says, noting how Heggerle would be open with talking about his recovery.

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Joel Hegerle and his longtime friend Nancy Falck in front of a piece of his at the Rourke Art Museum.
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Recovery awakened a sense of spirituality in Hegerle, and he would later take part in sweat lodges. He developed an interest in Native American culture and items like tobacco packages would often find their way into his art.

“Joel saw the art in everything,” Johnk says. “Joel was artful every day. It was a good example for the rest of us. He made an impact. If you met Joel, you never forgot him.”

Some of Hegerle’s pieces will be at a celebration of life service at 2 p.m. Friday, July 29, at Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home in Fargo.

Rutter says he’s hoping to organize a small exhibit of the late artist’s work to show in the next month or so and will plan for a larger career retrospective in the coming years.

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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