September 5, 2006

A&E: Back from the brink - Artist Billy Hertz survives his own private ‘Siberian winter’

Billy Hertz: had a benign brain tumor removed in May. After a slow start to recovery, his sense of humor and creative impulses have come back. Photo by Kelly Mackey“I realize something is happening to my body. I was freezing in position, and I had turned to concrete. So I started to call out to Sue, and, instead of, ‘Sue help me there’s something wrong,’ it came out ... like I was speaking in tongues.”This is how Billy Hertz describes the events of May 14, three days before his 59th birthday, as he was walking in Waterfront Park with his friend Sue Greene. The walk was part of his new attempt, only a few weeks old, to adopt a healthier lifestyle.“So much for my health-walking stuff, my diet and quitting smoking,” Hertz now says, laughing.That day, Hertz — the artist and gallery owner who has been a driving force in the creation of the East Market Street gallery scene — was having a seizure brought on by a previously undetected brain tumor that had grown to the size of a baseball over 15 or 20 years.The incident led to harrowing series of events in the following days and weeks: an ambulance ride to University Hospital, the quick drafting of a living will, a 7-1/2-hour surgery to remove the benign tumor (two days after the seizure) and the strenuous start down the long road of rehabilitation. In the week after his operation, I visited him in Frazier Rehab where he spent a month. Hertz didn’t sound like his usual self. He was silent between his sentences where he’d normally fill those gaps with laughter. In our conversation, he delivered serious news: “I’m going to have to learn to walk again.”More recently, after several months of physical therapy, Hertz seems more like his old self. At the July 15 closing party for Galerie Hertz’s East Market Street location, where a staircase make its too difficult for Hertz to conduct business, he moved about the common garden area with a walker and an enthusiastic grin. His eyes sparkled, his conversations again emanated with laughter, and his punch lines came with lightning speed.While Galerie Hertz has closed its Market Street location because of the staircase and other uncertainties, he has tentative plans for a more manageable, smaller-scale version, most likely in Weissinger-Gaulbert Building at Third and Broadway.Since the surgery, Hertz has had to re-learn how to walk and draw, and, to some extent, recover some abilities to think and talk more fully. He is discovering how valuable each of those faculties really are.“If anybody has ever seen somebody in rehab tossing one of those little blue balls, or playing with the beanbags, and it looks so juvenile — which is what I thought,” he says. “I started doing that last week, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. It’s just amazing because you have to do it and maintain your balance.”He tries to draw every day and has made significant progress. “What normally had been a five-minute sketch Billy Hertz: had a benign brain tumor removed in May. After a slow start to recovery, his sense of humor and creative impulses have come back. Photo by Kelly Mackey was taking me 45 minutes Billy Hertz: had a benign brain tumor removed in May. After a slow start to recovery, his sense of humor and creative impulses have come back. Photo by Kelly Mackey and now it takes about 10,” he says. “My No. 1 goal is to get back to painting, and if I could do that, I could do everything else.”He predicts he’ll be painting in seven months.As for walking, his initial goal at Frazier Rehab was to make it from the hospital bed to the restroom; now he can go more than 1,000 feet. But stairs remain too daunting, and he uses a walker.In addition to physical therapy, he has started radiation therapy to remove the last remnants of the tumor.Hertz says his experience recovering from a brain injury is “very similar to going to Siberia in the winter time.” He would know; as part of a cultural exchange through the Sister Cities of Louisville, he traveled to the Russian city of Perm, just west of Siberia. Like that trip, within his own private stark “Siberian winter” this summer, Hertz has found valuable experiences during his recuperation, and in the generosity of others. “It only takes one good brain tumor to humble you, make you find out what’s important, make you value everything, make you know how much you love somebody,” he says.He is effusive about the hospital staff, his rehabilitation therapists, his fellow patients and his friends. He is also grateful to the unknown couple that assisted him at the park on the day of the seizure. “I always thought it was strange how people would tear-up on camera,” he says, as his emotions begin to bubble up. “I’d like this to be in print: how much Tom’s meant.”Tom Schnepf, 58, has been Hertz’s business and domestic partner for more than 20 years. They’ve owned three buildings on East Market Street (they’ve sold two); had three different gallery locations; and have been instrumental in transforming East Market Street into a gallery district. Much of what they’ve accomplished has been done with little assistance from the city.“People said Tom and I were nuts for living downtown and opening a gallery,” Hertz recalls. “It was hysterical. There’d be these little old ladies running from their cars to the front door of my studio. I always enjoyed being in New York and going to all the galleries, and visualized Louisville that way because there’s all these empty spaces. So we said, ‘O.K., we could make this a better neighborhood.’ We browbeat people to move downtown and open businesses.”Call it karma, poetic justice or a good investment, but the risks Hertz and Schnepf have taken, and the contributions they have made to growing an active gallery district near the city center, have led to significant changes in their lives. Most notably, there’s the purchase of a house in the village of Panicale, Italy, in 2001. They spend substantial amounts of the year living and working there and consider it a “real second home.”Since purchasing the house, Hertz says his experiences in Panicale have caused a remarkable shift in his art, and it will be fascinating to see how this summer’s experiences play out in his work. He already has plans.“Now, my next body of work is going to be called: ‘Billy has a tumor, Billy had a tumor.’ I’m collecting all this stuff: doctor’s reports, sections of the MRIs ... a tape loop running, maybe interviewing other brain-injured people.”Hertz tells me, “They can say , ‘The man is an asshole,’ or ‘He’s a really nice guy.” In either case, he hopes they’ll say … “but his paintings are excellent.” Contact the writer at