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Cowboy artist's exhibit celebrates movement, color and energy of the rodeo

Cowboy artist Walter Piehl discusses his work at a reception Sunday for the opening of his retrospective show at the North Dakota Museum of Art. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 4
An untitled piece of work by Walter Piehl. (Photo submitted by North Dakota Museum of Art)2 / 4
Walter Piehl's "Very Scary Larry" from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo Series. (Photo submitted by North Dakota Museum of Art)3 / 4
Cowboy artist Walter Piehl, left, compares notes with Ross Rolshoven at a reception Sunday at the North Dakota Museum of Art during the opening of Piehl's retrospective show. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald4 / 4

The only artwork that hung on the walls of Walter Piehl's childhood home—other than a calendar—was the well-known picture of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Yet, over the course of an art career which spans more than 50 years, Piehl has become one of North Dakota's prominent artists, beloved and respected widely for his skill in capturing a blizzard of movement—like a cowboy atop a bucking bronco—on canvas with a paintbrush.

Piehl's favorite subjects flow from the rodeo arena, the prairie, the Old West, and the Native American experience in this part of the country.

"I love history and the history of the West, the cattle industry—good, bad or indifferent," Piehl said.

An exhibit of about 55 of his works, "Walter Piehl Retrospective," opened Sunday and continues through Jan. 13 at the North Dakota Museum of Art.

"It represents a pretty good cross-section of my work, since I was a young adult," Piehl said.

Museum Director Laurel Reuter said Piehl, as a young artist, "became grounded in the history of Western European art and looked to it often as he searched for his own voice. Early on, he decided he would make art out of his own life, the rodeo."

Piehl learned "how to combine realism with expressionism, how to give drawing its equal place in his paintings, and how to manage bursting color," she said.

"He went on to lead in the emergence of a new, contemporary art of the American West," she said.

At the show's opening, Piehl, aptly attired in a gaucho hat, calfskin vest, jeans and boots, revealed a down-to-earth personality, telling the crowd that at many of his art openings there'd usually be a half dozen people, and "most of them would be relatives."

"If I had known this was such a big deal, I'd have put on a fancy vest," he said.

He recalled first meeting Reuter at a rodeo in Fort Totten, N.D., about 40 years ago when he delivered a batch of artwork to her for an exhibit she was planning in Grand Forks.

"I hauled the art in the saddle compartment of a horse trailer," he said.

Constantly drawing

Raised on a farm near Marion, N.D., in the southeast part of the state, Piehl describes the environment that fostered his interest in all things western as "kind of a hardscrabble place," he said.

His father ran a diversified livestock and small grain farm and, in partnership with another farmer, produced rodeos, supplying horses for contests throughout the Dakotas and Minnesota.

As a child, Piehl drew all of the time, filling tablets of "newsprint with blue lines" that were common at the time, he said.

"I drew endlessly in the evening, to self-entertain," he said.

Family members had to tell him to quit, warning him about eye strain.

"I had an interest and some ability," he said. "I was making drawings of real things, what I thought art was."

Piehl received his first art instruction at Concordia College where, for four years, he felt "totally overwhelmed, and totally outclassed in art classes," he said. His fellow students had much more art training through urban high school art programs.

"It was very terrifying; I had horrible insecurities. I had no idea what art was," he said. "I went to Concordia to get me out of the haystack. The only thing that kept me there was fear of the haystack. I had no confidence in the kind of art I was doing."

'No bad subject matter'

That would change later, when Piehl enrolled in a master's degree program at UND in the 1960s. Piehl unleashed his talent for rodeo- and cowboy-themed art that set him on a path which would characterize his career.

Art teacher Dave Brown found out Piehl spent his weekends helping out with his family's rodeo business and asked why he didn't paint rodeos.

"I thought that type of art had too much romance, that it was not a good subject for a serious artist," Piehl told his teacher.

"Nothing is a bad subject matter; it's far better to paint what you know," Brown countered. "Anything you paint would be better than these lame and insipid landscapes."

"It was like being hit in the head with a baseball bat," Piehl said. "It was a sobering, shocking truth—and he was right to tell me that."

Art professors can be "very blunt," Piehl said, but he's grateful for the "wake up call" that spurred his desire to find a new way to capture his preferred subject matter with "dynamic movement and energy."

He was freed to explore the use of bright color, which he had thought was out of bounds.

"For rodeos, it's all about bright colors—for the energy, to get some snap out of it," he said.

"The rodeo did dominate—and probably still dominates—my art."

Namesake gallery

Piehl, who recently retired after 48 years as an art professor at Minot State University, said teaching allowed him to paint "the subjects I wanted to paint, when I wanted."

"Teaching came naturally," he said. "I love the classroom."

MSU has opened the Walter Piehl Gallery in its Northwest Arts Center within the renovated Gordon B. Olson Library, though Piehl tried to persuade administrators against naming a gallery in his honor.

"I didn't want them to do that. I'm not worthy," he said. "I'm just doing this stuff."

He conceded the gallery represents "a great honor," but one he accepted reluctantly.

"It gets complicated," he said. "Then you have to act like you're worthy."

Despite this and many other honors and recognition for his artistic talent, the "insecurity" he felt as a freshman at Concordia trails him.

"I've always questioned what I've done," he said.

Judgment about art is subjective, but it must be viewed and critiqued in a wider context, he said. "It has to be compared with where it fits in the history of art."

Piehl seems proud of the "wonderfully-installed show" at the North Dakota Museum of Art and what people will find when they visit.

"I hope they find growth in what I did—the simple things I was dealing with—the energy, and the horse and rider in conflict, and sometimes the horse and rider in cooperation," he said.

If you go:

What: Walter Piehl Retrospective

Where: North Dakota Museum of Art, 261 Centennial Drive, Grand Forks

When: On exhibit through Jan. 13

Museum hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

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