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Walter Piehl: Bismarck Painting, Kim Konikow: Impact of Arts in ND

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Walter Piehl

Acclaimed artist Walter Piehl has created a new commissioned painting for the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library. We explore his creative process and the new artwork. ~~~ The recent Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 (AEP6) study by Americans for the Arts has revealed that North Dakota's nonprofit arts and culture sector made a significant contribution to the economy in 2022, generating $151.8 million. This amount highlights not only the sector's economic impact but also its role in enhancing communities through creativity, cultural understanding, quality of life improvement, and social cohesion. Our guest, Kim Konikow, Executive Director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, underscores these benefits. To comprehend the sector's growth, comparing the $151.8 million generated in 2022 with figures from previous years would be enlightening.

Renowned North Dakota artist Walter Piehl has a new painting, “Lady Blue”: Sweetheart of the Rodeo at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library. The public is welcome to attend a dedication on Thursday, December 7 at 6 p.m. He spoke with Ashley Thornberg about his many decades as a Western Americana artist.

Interview Highlights (Full Transcript Below) 

On the size and location of his latest painting, and why he likes exhibiting his work in public spaces: 

Some months ago, I was contacted by the director of the library, and she asked if I would be interested in doing a large piece for a wall that is on an enclosure of their elevator. This piece would hang maybe 12 feet off the ground, and I chuckled about that. I said, “wow, that sounds very interesting.”

I do like placing paintings in public places so the work can be seen by more than just somebody who buys it and takes it home. We went over and looked at the wall, visited about it, and I accepted the challenge.

How early criticism from an art professor changed his entire thinking about his process:

He said, “Why don't you paint [rodeo] as a subject instead of those lame and insipid landscapes that you've been painting?” I had enough education at that point. I knew what insipid meant. My response to him was, “I thought it would be something too romantic, too full of adventure, not an appropriate subject for a serious art student.” He said, “There is nothing that is a subject that is inappropriate.” He said, “It's how you handle it.” He said, “I would like to see you move in that direction”. So I did.

…. So I wholeheartedly went after what I thought would be some other people in art history that dealt with very dramatic, very dynamic, very energetic action subjects. I turned to Italy at the turn of the century, the early 1900s. There's a group of artists there called the Futurists, the Italian Futurists. They practiced a style that looked like Cubism, but they applied it to moving subjects. They were also anarchist political activists, and they did not want to paint anything that was static. They only wanted to paint things that were moving and things that were of great energy, like tanks at war, locomotives, the charge of the cavalry, moving subjects. And so that was the direction that my first paintings took.

How using bold colors captures the frenzied movement of a rodeo. 

Color has energy. Grays and browns and earth tones do not generate a lot of energy, the same energy that a bright blue would. But you could do the same with high contrast black and white. But I found that rodeo is a colorful sport and even if it isn't meant to be a bucking horse at a rodeo, even if it's just someone in a corral someplace trying to ride a horse that is bucking, the more color that I could put in it, the more energy that the piece would have then from that color.

How he captures the feel of riding a bucking horse, something he remembers from his time on the rodeo circuit. 

Well, I think you have to become part of the horse and you have to become part of the bull in order to make a good ride and it's not something that you're going to probably do well at the first few times. And the riders talk about maybe after you've been on a minimum of 50 head, maybe after you've been on a minimum of 100 head, things slow down for you and you really then, if you're exceptional, maybe after 50 heads, 30 heads, you start taking charge and you start being able to do what you need to do to spur, to move, to counterbalance with the horse. It is something that you learn with time. And some people are quicker at that than others, but you do need to get on and shake your face for the gate to open.

I think an awful lot of times before things do slow down to the point where you can become part of the bucking event.

Full Transcript

Ashley Thornberg
Walter, tell us about this new piece that's going up in Bismarck. It is one of those that is unmistakably Walter Peel, and yet it's a new piece of work.

Walter Piehl
Some months ago, I was contacted by the director of the library, and she asked if I would be interested in doing a large piece for a wall that is on an enclosure of their elevator. This piece would hang maybe 10 feet, 12 feet off the ground, and I chuckled about that. I said, wow, that sounds very interesting.

I do like placing paintings in public places so the work can be seen by more than just somebody who buys it and takes it home. We went over and looked at the wall, visited about it, and I accepted the challenge. I brought the work down to them a few weeks ago, and they're maybe making some changes on the wall, and that will be installed, I believe, on the 7th. It'll be up for public viewing, and they're having a reception also at that time.

Ashley Thornberg
Right, yeah. 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 7th at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library at the main atrium, and this is free and open to all who want to come and see the new piece. Walter, you are very known for your Western, very frenzied expressionism kinds of pieces, and people who maybe don't know this, but you were very active in the rodeo when you were young too, and now when you look at the painting, at least when I look at these paintings, I feel like I am at a rodeo. How do you go about trying to capture something as frenzied as riding a bucking bull or a horse and capture that in a painting?

Walter Piehl
It's been a long journey. It started when I was very young, growing up in a place that didn't have electricity other than windmill electricity, which was very hard to come by until REA got there when I was in the lower grades. I drew a lot for entertainment, and horses and riders and bucking horses were all part of what I liked drawing. I filled up tablet after tablet with those because there really wasn't much of anything else for a little kid to do but draw in those days. I carried that interest in drawing when I wanted to get out of the haystack and I went to college at Concordia in Moorhead, Minnesota. When I finished there, I still wanted to further my education.

Probably, if I would have gotten a teaching job, that might have derailed me for a time, but I applied and was accepted at the University of North Dakota in their new graduate program in the art department. So I went up there and I was encouraged after working for some months by one of my instructors who said, “I hear you go to rodeos.” I said, “Yes, my father has a rodeo production company and he produces rodeos. He's in partnership with another gentleman, Olaf Berg from Catherine, North Dakota, and he has buck and bulls and they either supply stock or they produce the rodeos.” He said, “Why don't you paint that as a subject instead of those lame and insipid landscapes that you've been painting?” I had enough education at that point I knew what insipid meant. My response to him was, “I thought it would be something too romantic, too full of adventure, not an appropriate subject for a serious art student.” He said, “There is nothing that is a subject that is inappropriate.” He said, “It's how you handle it.” He said, “I would like to see you move in that direction.” So I did.

It was something that I practiced on my own on the side in certain ways, Western Americana subjects, but at Concordia I really did not work in that direction. So I wholeheartedly went after what I thought would be some other people in art history that dealt with very dramatic, very dynamic, very energetic action subjects. I turned to Italy at the turn of the century, the early 1900s. There's a group of artists there called the Futurists, the Italian Futurists. They practiced a style that looked like Cubism, but they applied it to moving subjects. They were also anarchist political activists, and they did not want to paint anything that was static. They only wanted to paint things that were moving and things that were of great energy: like tanks at war, locomotives, the charge of the cavalry, moving subjects. And so that was the direction that my first paintings took.

Ashley Thornberg
Wow. I want to focus just a little bit more on what that early professor said. It's all in how you handle it. At that time he was talking about the subject matter, but it speaks to the attitude to how you handle it -in this case, something like criticism or maybe a critical feedback. When somebody calls your work lame and insipid, it could be really easy to quit instead of just changing course. Talk to us about the importance of “failing”, and I'm using that word in air quotes, and how learning how to pivot is critical.

Walter Piehl
There was not much chance that I was going to give up and walk away from it because I had at that time, as I've always had, what I called then especially “fear of the haystack.” And I did not want to go back to the haystack.

Ashley Thornberg
Meaning?

Walter Piehl
I grew up in the hay field and that's all I saw - was the life of my father's farm and his cattle operation there in Marion, North Dakota, and I wanted to do more than just that. After undergraduate school, I got married. My wife, Becky, and I moved to Grand Forks and she worked for the medical school as a secretary and I went to school for two years. I was not ready to give up that easily.

Ashley Thornberg
We are visiting today with artist and former professor, former rodeo competitor, Walter Peel. He has a new piece called “Lady Blue.” It's part of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo series.

It is going to be on display at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library. The public is welcome to attend the opening reception coming up this Thursday, December 7th at 6 p.m. And that is free. Walter, unfortunately for me, this is a phone conversation and so I'm only able to look at this painting as a photograph that you sent me with your cell phone. But it's got a bright yellow background and this big bucking horse is blue and there's a lot of orange in the mane and in the saddle. And then there are these squiggly, frenetic kind of lines of a bright green. And honestly, when you first sent the photo, I thought, “Oh, he forgot to rotate it before sending it.” And then I realized, no, it is meant to be displayed vertically like this because the horse is trying to buck this rider. The use of color in work like this, I don't think a painting like this would work in baby blue and soft pink or maybe some taupe. So talk to us a little, Walter, about being bold in your choice of color.

Walter Piehl
Color has energy. Grays and browns and earth tones do not generate a lot of energy, the same energy that a bright blue would. But you could do the same with high contrast black and white.

But I found that rodeo is a colorful sport and even if it isn't meant to be a bucking horse at a rodeo, even if it's just someone in a corral someplace trying to ride a horse that is bucking, the more color that I could put in it, the more energy that the piece would have then from that color. Yes, I also look to the abstract expressionists, the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, the action painters, for part of the style that I have adopted, which is bright color. And you'll notice that the paint has been applied with energy or it would seem to have been applied with energy because it drips and it splatters and it runs down - It is a very fluid medium. And if you put it on with energy, that's going to show up from time to time, and so that comes through. And all of that in total then hopefully will energize a little bit more the subject, which by its very nature is a very energetic and action-filled subject.

Ashley Thornberg
Even looking at this through email, my heart beats a little faster when looking at it and I would be positively terrified to try to be in a rodeo. Give us a sense of really what it does honestly feel like to be on a creature that is hundreds of pounds more than you and trying to ride something like this.

Walter Piehl
Or a thousand, fifteen hundred more. Early on, I found out that I was not the best suited for the rough stock events. I tried them and I did not have good luck with it. But my father - one day I showed up at a rodeo, we were putting a rodeo on in Binford, North Dakota, and he said, “The announcer isn't going to make it today, so you're going to have to be the announcer.” So that put me into a sideline of announcing rodeos for 20, 30 years off and on back in the late 60s, and off and on up until probably 2000, where I announced rodeos up here in the northwest corner of the state, a few of them in Canada, some in South Dakota. I did that a lot and I went to rodeos and I saw bucking horses and bucking bulls, thousands of them in those years that I was active with rodeo as a team roper traveling to rodeos that way, or announcing, or whatever.

I know what the action is like and it's a powerful sensation. It's an adrenaline rush when you're on their back and not necessarily at a rodeo, but when a horse starts bucking with you in the corral, it is a real surge of energy that one gets out of that. And they talk about that adrenaline rush. Definitely, it's there.

Ashley Thornberg
I remember an interview one time with a young woman who was a welder and then she turned into one of those aerial ballet dancers where she was dancing on these ropes 60 feet in the air. And she said that they were really similar. And I was floored. What does welding have to do with something like dance? And she said it was about the breath and the body awareness. Is something like that similar in you when you talk about knowing how to be on a horse or being in an arena and announcing the rodeo and then painting this many decades later? Talk about the body and breath and mental state that you're in and if they're similar, and if not, how are they different?

Walter Piehl
Well, I think you have to become part of the horse and you have to become part of the bull in order to make a good ride and it's not something that you're going to probably do well at the first few times. And the riders talk about maybe after you've been on a minimum of 50 head, maybe after you've been on a minimum of 100 head, things slow down for you and you really then, if you're exceptional, maybe after 50 heads, 30 head, you start taking charge and you start being able to do what you need to do to spur, to move, to counterbalance with the horse. It is something that you learn with time. And some people are quicker at that than others, but you do need to get on and shake your face for the gate to open.

I think an awful lot of times before things do slow down to the point where you can become part of the bucking event. This is not the only event, of course, that I deal with my practice as a painter. I call myself more of a Western Americana painter because I paint still life paintings also, but my still life paintings have boots in them: or they're of saddles, or they're of cowgirls standing on the back of their horses, or some barrel racers, or just a cowgirl standing there. Because I try to - in my practice I've always felt that there's more to Western Americana than just bucking horses and men roping and all of that. So I try to give a large focus of my work to women who are also engaged with horses in one way or another, because the horse is central to my people in rodeo, my people in Western Americana painting. So the horse is central to that.

Ashley Thornberg
What does a word like Western mean to you as a Western Americana artist?

Walter Piehl
The lifestyle that existed mostly west of the Mississippi River, even though the name cowboy came from the Appalachian areas of eastern United States of someone who herded cows. Western and Western Americana to me is west of the Mississippi, really, in my mind. I'm not a geographer, but I have been a student of Western Americana history to a large degree.

Lewis and Clark also have interested me as a subject. And all of that fur trading, fur trapping, the frontier life, Native American, all of those things have influenced me and have been my subject from time to time. It's just that perhaps I'm better remembered for my Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the bull riding series called the American Minotaur series. But Western Americana is all the things that have happened and currently are still happening throughout the United States now. But it really had its roots for me west of the Mississippi River.

Ashley Thornberg
Sweetheart of the Rodeo in North Dakota is basically synonymous with Walter Piehl, but it is an album by the Byrds that came back in 1968. Why that album? What inspired you to do work and give it that title?

Walter Piehl
I became familiar with that album back in the late 60s and loved it. The Byrds, that was their first country rock album, so flavored. They were rock and roll. That was a rock and roll, great rock and roll band. They chose that image, the Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which they somehow either got permission to or they paid for the right to use it because that is a poster that was made by a very famous West Coast artist by the name of Joe Mora, who was a South American by birth, but came to the American West and became a practitioner of the cowboy life and also as an artist and also as a writer. Joe Mora is very famous in the history of the early 1900s, especially in California, where he is most known and operated mostly out of.

He painted this beautiful artwork that became a poster that was sold at the time called the Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It is that poster, I think it was done in the 20s, that the Byrds used as the image for their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. One day I was working on a piece in my abstracted style and I looked at it and I thought, “Wow, there's a heart, a big heart in the background of this particular piece.” And I thought, “What a great name for a series of paintings that deal with the bucking horse” - because it is the bucking horse that I feel is really the sweetheart of the rodeo. No, it was a cowgirls that were the sweetheart of the rodeo in those Joe Mora and on that Byrds album. So that was the start of that whole series and it's been ongoing since back in the 70s for me. And it will continue as long as I paint. When I paint bucking horses, they will all be from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo series.

Ashley Thornberg
And the latest edition of the series, “Lady Blue”, is going up at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library. There is a reception on Thursday, December 7th at 6 p.m. Walter, one last question for you. Going back to that professor who changed the course of your work, calling your landscape work lame and insipid, and then you have gone on to be, you're retired from being a professor and an arts educator yourself. What does it feel like to have to give criticism like that and help someone else find their own vision?

Walter Piehl
I was never that brutal, I don't think.

Ashley Thornberg
That's fair. Insipid is a tough word.

Walter Piehl
That is a tough word to swallow. Lame is also not a good word. I loved teaching. I loved the classroom. I didn't care as much for the administrative part that oftentimes goes with that. But I taught at Minot State for almost 50 years, and they treated me very well. I loved the students that we had, and I loved being in the classroom. But I tried to be much more encouraging. I think some instructors can be very brutal in what they say, and they could couch their honesty a little better. But in my case, as I said, I was not about to go back to the haystack. I was excited to be able to pursue this subject in my own particular style. I did not want to, and that was a caution by Dave Brown when he said this to me. He said, “But you can't copy other people when you're doing this. You have to find your own way of dealing with this subject.” Hopefully, I did. And as an educator, I hope I helped move people in that same direction.

On my work now, the gallery that I'm most represented in, in Bismarck and in western and North Dakota would be the Capitol Gallery right in downtown Bismarck, just a few blocks away from the Bismarck Library. And I suspect that is where and how Christine and the Bismarck Library people decided that my work - they've seen my work at the Capitol - and they decided they wanted to talk to me about a big painting.

The painting size is eight foot by five foot. And it hangs about 10, 12 feet off the floor. It was quite a new challenge for me.

Ashley Thornberg
Yeah, even the cell phone pic is pretty arresting. I look forward to seeing it in person one day. Again, Thursday, December 7th at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Library, 6pm is the public dedication we're visiting today with the artist Walter Peihl.

You can find out more atwalterpiehl.com.