Austin’s own incredibly laid-back, soft-spoken, and most famous counter-culture hero is gone.
Bill Narum passed away last night, November 18, 2009, while sitting at his studio art table at his home studio east of Austin. He had apparently suffered heart attack and passed peacefully. He was 62 years old.
Narum was born on January 11, 1947 to talented artists Bill and Mary Narum in Austin, Texas, but the family moved to Houston, where Narum grew up. There were five children in the family; artists Jon Eric Narum and Heidi Narum Hyatt, along with Wendy Narum and Kurt Narum (deceased). He leaves behind his beloved life partner Gloria Badillo-Hill, two children Michelle Narum and Nico Narum D’Auterive, and two grandchildren; Alexandria and Julian Groce.
Narum was an artist, illustrator, and Texas counter-culture icon known for his work in popular entertainment, and for being one of the few non-natives to have lived with the Tarahumara tribe of northern Mexico in Copper Canyon. More importantly, Narum was a gentle, soft-spoken man who befriended many and was extremely well liked.
He began his professional career during the 1960s and early 1970s as part of the growing counterculture in Houston.
Having discovered his talent for art at an early age, Narum told the Austin Chronicle in an interview, “In the fifth grade, I’d been drawing girlie cartoons from Playboy in a notebook, and I left it in my desk after class. The next day I was reprimanded for disrupting class because they were passing around my notebook. The teacher called my parents and turned it over to them. My mom looked at it and said, ‘I have one thing to ask you: Did you trace these or draw these?’ ‘I drew them.’ I told her. ‘Well, okay. That’s good,’ she said.”
In the late 1960s Narum co-founded the Houston, Texas FM rock and roll radio station KLOL and worked as art director for Houston’s Space City News, an underground newspaper. He also worked with KPFT-FM, the Pacifica radio station in Houston, and was a founder of Space City Video.
It was while working at Space City News that he became friends with a young musician named Billy Gibbons and girlfriend Mickey Phoenix. Billy was in a band that had recently rechristened itself ZZ Top and Billy recognized Narum talent and asked him to design their first gig poster.
Phoenix, now owner of Calico Tees in Houston, remembered Narum for his creativity. Narum had worked with Phoenix in his early days in Houston designing T-shirt art.
“He was a wonderful man and we will miss him and all his creativity. I am so mad, sad, and bummed. What a drag.”
Narum’s relationship with ZZ Top endured through the years as Narum became their house designer, creating more gig posters, T-shirt designs and album covers. Narum is well known worldwide for his many album covers he designed for the band, such as “Tres Hombres” and “Fandango”, as well as his staging created for ZZ Top.
Narum was recognized for his 1976’s Tejas to epic murals for the band’s fleet of semis and the famous cactus-and-cattle-skull stage design for the trio’s legendary 1975-76 “Worldwide Texas” tour. His murals were depicted on the sides of the band’s tour buses and fleet of semi’s. He was officially known as the fourth member of the band.
In the early 1970s, Narum returned to his hometown to work with other artists that had created the counterculture in Austin; Micael Priest, Guy Juke, Danny Garrett and others helped found the famous Sheaunough Studios. Garrett, who is currently living and teaching in New Zealand remembered Narum:
“Bill Narum was a friend, colleague, role model and mentor. In those heady days at Sheauxnough he, along with Guy Juke, Micael Priest, and the other talents there, gave me my remedial art education. I’m stunned. It is hard to imagine Austin without Narum.”
While at Sheaunough Studios, Narum continued his work with ZZ Top as well as creating concert posters for many artists including Captain Beefheart, Ravi Shankar and Humble Pie. Music venues in Austin such as the Armadillo World Headquarters and Continental Club also used Narum’s posters to promote their monthly slate of acts. And, he was a contributing artist to the Austin Sun. Bill Hood remembers that during his term as Art Director, the Sun did a center-spread, double-page tribute to Narum. Narum wanted to only reproduce his pen and ink drawings from his sketch book and the Sun wanted to show a retrospective of his music art. Hood remembers:
“It was my first meeting with Bill. We had seen each other at art events and music shows, but had not spoken. When we began discussions about the Sun tribute, I remember being in awe at how well Bill argued his point in his soft-spoken, laid-back manner. He was a true Texas gentleman in every sense.
“A week and a half ago, we were at the Austin Sun Reunion party at Dave Moriaty’s and we spent a good hour engrossed in conversation. His intense blue eyes sparkled as he told me about the studio he was constructing on his property east of Austin and about his plans to release the Armadillo video soon. He was, as always, very upbeat.
“I was saddened when I first received Margaret Moser’s email informing me of Bill’s passing. I am still in shock. We are fortunate that we have memories of Bill’s life in a tremendously creative treasure of art that he has left us.”
In the mid-1980s, Narum dove into computers, experimenting with computer graphics, animation and film. He grew to become an accomplished multi-media artist. Narum was approached by the computer game company Origin Systems (now EA – Entertainment Arts) to work on game development. Narum followed by opening his own game development company, Go-Go Studios in Austin, Texas in the mid-1990s where he acted as art director and CEO.
Within the music industry, everywhere you looked you would find Narum’s work. It appeared on gold and platinum albums from the music industry, gig posters, T-shirt designs for a host of record labels, music venues, solo musicians and groups, such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Doug Sahm, Nanci Griffith and others.
He received certificates of appreciation from the State of Texas and the City of Houston. His work done with The Continental Club in Austin led to the 1988 Austin Poster Artist of the Year in the Austin Chronicle’s People’s Choice Awards. The posters became some of the most desired gig posters among collectors.
In 1993, Narum was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation by the City of Austin for providing a valued and distinguished service to the public through his work as an artist.
In 2005, he was elected president of the board of directors of Austin folk-art storehouse the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture around the same time his 40-year retrospective, “You Call That Art,” opened at the museum.
Narum later went on to work for the computer game development company Origin Systems, and followed by opening his own game development company, Go-Go Studios in Austin, Texas in the mid-1990s where he acted as art director and CEO.
Narum passed on November 18, 2009 of a heart attack, while sitting at his art table in his studio at his home in Austin.
There is a tribute planned for November 28, 2009 at Threadgill’s restaurant in Austin, to honor Narum, with proceeds going to establish a memorial fund.
Speaking of Narum’s many achievements, SAMOPC director Leea Mechling told the Austin Chronicle:
“He’s a major contributor to the cultural dynamics of not only Austin, but Texas, the United States, and the world.”
Fellow Armadillo Poster Artist, Sam Yeates, had this to say upon learning of Narum’s passing:
“We have lost one of the most talented and generous members of the art community. He set the bar for the rest of us with amazing artistic abilities, incredible design sense and seemingly boundless technical knowledge. If you knew Bill was involved in a project it was going to be done exceptionally well and he inspired everyone involved to be at their best.
“My first introduction to Bills art was the classic ZZ Top album covers and the monumental sets done for their concert tours in the 70s. If that wasn’t enough, he created some of the most compelling concert posters from that time as well. When he wasn’t experimenting with video, photography, painting at his easel he was living a fiercely brave adventurous life. If we ever had a Renaissance man in our midst, Bill was that guy. I wish I had told him all this to his face when I had the chance.”