Careers in rodeo can be short-lived, but North Dakota artist Walter Piehl Jr.'s involvement with rodeo has been lifelong.
In a chute for the first time at the age of 19, he rode a rodeo bronc. Later, the former bronc rider became a rodeo announcer. In his forties, Piehl won the Roughrider Rodeo Association’s year-end mixed team roping championship. His artistic bent, however, has paralleled and outdistanced those activities.
Piehl has been painting rodeo since he was a young adult. Complementing his art is his 40-year teaching career, chiefly at North Dakota’s Minot State University.
Raised in rural Marion, North Dakota, where his father, Walter Piehl Sr., ran a livestock and grain farm, Piehl grew up around horses, which became subjects of his early drawings. Constant sketching as a kid led to studying art at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. By then, his family was producing rodeos. In graduate school at the University of North Dakota, Piehl admits to painting “lame and insipid landscapes.”
Advised to paint what occupied him every weekend, Piehl began to explore rodeo imagery and was invigorated. He sought something “flowing, more dynamic in a painterly kind of way.” His lodestar was the bucking horse, for him a symbol that “offers infinite possibilities stylistically.”What evolved is an expressionistic style that defies preconceived notions of “cowboy art.” He doesn’t capture the single moment of a horse bucking, back legs skyward. He seemingly slows down the lightning-fast action, capturing it in a kind of multiple-exposure blur that conveys all the movement leading up to and through the moment.
The action in Piehl’s work derives from his process. He begins with a flourish of colored-chalk outlines to underpin the image. He slaps, dribbles, and smears acrylic paint on the canvas quickly and energetically, something he wants his viewers to perceive. His use of bold primary and secondary colors, along with strong brushstrokes, conveys the action and danger of rodeo. Virile and vibrant, his work thrums and thuds, jolts and jars. Cowboys say that’s exactly how rodeo feels.
Piehl’s paintings embrace a variety of Western cultural themes. His Sweetheart of the Rodeo suite is dedicated to the bucking horse, not “pretty girls riding fast horses.” The Roping Fool series pays homage to Will Rogers (named for Rogers’ movie of a similar name) and those who spin a lariat. His Cowgirl suite honors the women of ranching culture, while his Wild West series pays tribute to Wild West shows. His recent Northern Plains Heritage Area suite portrays the 19th-century settlement of the Northern Missouri River corridor.
Piehl’s work hangs in museum shows and in permanent collections around the country, including the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Minnesota; Museum of Art in Minneapolis; and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. He has won a string of awards and prizes, notably an inaugural 2008 Bush Foundation Enduring Vision Award, which included a check for $100,000. The prize money helped Piehl buy a new horse trailer, which he uses for transporting his art to venues around the country.
He is still with his wife, Becky, whom he met “at the pencil sharpener” in the first grade, dated in high school, and married after college. Piehl taught at Minot State from 1970 until recently, living with his family near where he started out in life, in view of prairie and horses and immersed in the cultures he champions.
Walter Piehl is represented by Artspace Suite 1 Gallery in Minot, North Dakota, and The Capital Gallery in Bismarck, North Dakota. Piehl owns the town’s much-loved Blue Rider bar. Housed in the oldest wooden business building in downtown Minot, the bar is decorated with pieces by dozens of artists, including Piehl, whose Fritz Scholder mural contributes to an interior he describes as “art and dead animal heads.” walterpiehl.com
Photography: Courtesy of Walter Piehl Jr.
From our January 2020 issue.