The Rocky Hoerner Picture Show

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Rocky Hoerner and Cheryl Bengtson at the pair’s new art gallery and massage parlor on Nucleus Avenue. Bengtson is holding a new work by Hoerner that’s a tribute to the Sperry Chalet.

On May 22, 2000, Rocky Hoerner had the scariest night of his life. The artist was with then girlfriend Eileen Holmquist in his Nucleus Avenue studio when he saw Joseph Aceto parked nearby.

Aceto was Holmquist’s estranged boyfriend. She had a restraining order against Aceto. Hoerner didn’t know Aceto’s violent past, when he approached him to ask Aceto what he wanted.

Aceto pointed a handgun at Hoerner and began firing. He emptied the gun of all but one shot — the last bullet he left in the chamber, pointed it at Holmquist’s head and kidnapped her, racing up the North Fork in his car.

Hoerner dove into his studio as the bullets flew — Aceto had narrowly missed hitting him twice.

Police gave chase and a massive manhunt ensued. But Aceto, who proved to be no match for the North Fork’s bug population, gave up after three days in the woods on the lam.

It was later revealed that Aceto had a violent past, including bombings of courthouses and commercial aircraft and murdering a fellow inmate in Arkansas. He’d been released under the Federal Witness Program, brought to Columbia Falls by a local church. Tragically Holmquist took her own life a couple of years later, Aceto would die in prison.

For Hoerner, he said the incident changed his life forever.

“I buried myseld in my work,” he said last week. “I did a lot of pieces over those years.”

Hoerner had to keep a low profile for a long time. Aceto didn’t die until 2014, and he was afraid that he might have friends in organized crime that would try to get him.

But now Hoerner’s life has come full circle. He recently opened a new art studio just a few doors down from where the shooting and kidnapping took place in the Circle K Plaza. He says business is doing well. His unique style blends acrylic paint and pen and ink to scenes of Montana landscapes and wildlife. He’ll paint and draw on nearly anything — even scrap pieces of paper. One of his most recent works that has proven popular is a tribute to the burned Sperry Chalet — he did it on the back of one of his old calendars.

Hoerner has been honing his craft for decades. He’s been selling his work for 46 years. He’s made most of his living as an artist, but in lean years has worked at Semitool and other local companies.

Right now, he said he almost had more work than he can handle.

“I’ve got 20 fires going and I’m the only fireman,” he joked.

Hoerner is currently sharing his studio and gallery space with West Glacier native, masseusse and artist Cheryl Bengtson. Bengston has been practicing massage for 10 years in Whitefish. She does Swedish, deep tissue, reflexology and pre-natal massage techniques.

She can be reached by appointment at (406) 871-5513.

Hoerner’s studio will have a grand opening during Night of Lights. It’s open Mondays noon to 6 p.m. and Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. or by appointment. He can be reached at (406) 270-7599.

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