Stronger than dirt 

Napkin artist Bill Hegg soaks up the past

Bill Hegg is a bearish 77-year-old man with calloused hands who grew up on a Kalispell ranch and worked as an auto mechanic and blacksmith. He's also an artist who sketches on a dainty surface. At Southgate Mall in Missoula, you can find him sitting at a table penciling landscapes of cowboys, cabins and horses on gauzy paper napkins.

"Everyone knows me at the mall," he says. "I go down there at the clock or out in front of the Gyro place. I go down there and sketch. There's a couple there, I saw them just yesterday. They came up and said, 'What are you working on today, Bill?'" He laughs heartily.

At Ruby's Cafe, McDonald's, Grizzly Grocery and other joints around town, people call Hegg the "Napkin Artist," and waitresses and restaurant managers have been known to collect his drawings to hang on their walls. Mountain West Bank displays one of his colored-pencil pieces—blown up from a napkin sketch—on the wall of its lobby. His drawings have been turned into greeting cards, which are sold in area stores including Rockin Rudy's and Good Food Store.

Even when he's on the road, Hegg is compelled to sketch on napkins. In 2010, his wife Angie suffered a stroke and heart attack. He traveled with his daughter, Gina, to visit Angie in a Seattle hospital. On their way he stopped at several coffee shops to draw on napkins. "He'll stop at every coffee shop on the way to his destination, if he can," says Gina. In Mills Creek, Wash., they dropped in at The Spotted Cow, where Hegg sat down and immediately started to draw and tell the owner stories. "If you engage him directly, you will find a man who comes across, at first, a bit gruff, but warms quickly," Gina says. The owner got a kick out of him, Gina recalls. Weeks later the cafe made a specialty brew called Dirt Coffee and dedicated it to Hegg in fondness of his tough demeanor.

Hegg's art studio is at the back of Gina's home in Missoula's University neighborhood. Inside is a revolving rack of his cards and a table stacked with folders holding napkins covered in art as well as sketches on paper. For the most part, Hegg's work carries a Western theme: He loves drawing solitary cabins covered in snow, churches nestled in rural towns, bears and ranchers, ghost towns and logging trucks flanked by pines. Most of the images are from what he remembers of his childhood, or they're just pulled from his head; he never draws from photos.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

One napkin drawing shows his old horse, Nugget, standing with all four legs on a tree stump.

"He's 14 hands," Hegg says. "I used to dance with him. I used to climb under his legs and all around him. And I taught him how to get up on a stump...He'd get right up and he'd stay there until I told him to get down. People say, 'How do you get him to do that?' I tell them, 'That horse is as human as you are.'"

Part of Hegg's charm is the way he shows off a sketch and then provides its back story. He goes off on a tangent about Nugget before moving on to the next piece of art.

"If I had a hat on, Nugget would come up behind me and take off running with it out in the field, flip it up and drop it, look at me, see if I was going to come get it," he says. "So I never wore a hat. I was always loose haired."

On his shelves he displays his woodcarvings of old cars and trucks—original Ford and Dodge models, for example. Some are tiny and nested in boxes, other pieces loom more prominently, like the one of a mountain man in a tree whose beard is being eaten by a bear. "I call that one 'A Close Shave,'" says Hegg, grinning.

Most of his titles are straightforward, but some are humorous like the bear carving. A drawing of a lone horse in a ghost town is titled "Home Alone." A large drawing of two elk in a forest rests on a futon. One elk is weathered, the other a young one bugling into the trees. He calls that one "The Old and the Bold."

Hegg grew up with little, but it's been the last couple of years that have taken a heavy toll. His wife's health issues and his own debilitation from a car accident have made it harder, he says, to be the independent Montana cowboy he's always seen himself as. He's fierce about keeping up with his art. In fact, he almost boils with annoyance when he thinks of people who pity themselves for being too old to do anything with their lives. "Even if you think you can't draw, you should try," he says. "I love to draw. You could tie both hands behind me, I wouldn't stop."

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