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Minot artists garner national acclaim
by Candi Helseth

Artist Walter Piehl
Walter Piehl, renowned N.D. artist, educator and horseman, continues his teaching assoication with Minot State University. (Photo by Casey Wollschlaeger)

Living in rural settings has provided creative inspiration for North Dakota artists whose work has brought them widespread recognition. Verendrye Electric Cooperative members Paul Bergren and Walter Piehl create art that reflects their lifestyles and interests. This year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recognized Bergren and his wife, Darlene, as NEA National Heritage Fellows. Prairie Public Broadcasting filmed a documentary of Piehl's artistic contributions, and Minot State University (MSU) announced plans to create the Walter Piehl Gallery.

For both men, art and life intertwine. With assistance from Darlene, Paul Bergren designs and constructs dogsleds and snowshoes. His sleds have won the Iditarod race and been in strong demand among top-winning racers. The Bergren family – including their five children – actively competed on the dogsled racing circuit and trained and raced their 70 Huskies.
Piehl is known for his contemporary painting style featuring Western Americana themes, such as horses and cowboys. He used to compete in rodeos and still raises and rides horses, and serves on the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame board of directors.

Both men minimize the recognitions they’ve received, saying they do what they do because it’s their passion. Art education is another passion. Piehl has taught art at MSU since 1970 and periodically teaches painting workshops. The Bergrens have taught short-term classes in public school settings, and Paul demonstrates old-time woodcrafts at the North Dakota State Fair Fur Traders’ Rendezvous camp.

The Bergrens are the first folk artists ever recognized for artwork in dogsleds and snowshoes. According to NEA, “the Bergrens’ work demonstrates the close connection between pleasing form and practical function. Using natural materials, they create objects of enduring beauty capable of meeting the demanding physical challenges that their work, by necessity, will encounter across both distance and time.”

NEA’s fellowships, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts, include a $25,000 award. In October, the Bergrens traveled to Washington, D.C., where they were among nine fellows honored at a banquet held in the Library of Congress. Paul built and shipped a dogsled to display at the ceremony.

“They wanted me to demonstrate sled building, but that's pretty difficult in 10 minutes, so I had one there and then I got on the stage and talked about what I do,” he explained. “It was quite an event. We even had rehearsals before we did this program.”

The Bergrens’ daughter, husband and extended family members living in Pennsylvania joined them for the festivities. Paul and Darlene were excited that their trip to Washington, D.C., included opportunity to meet their first great-grandchild.

North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA) nominated Paul and Darlene for the award. Paul, who is confined to a wheelchair from a vehicle accident, relies on Darlene as his partner in making the sleds he designs. NDCA folklorist Troyd Geist said NDCA has always considered the Bergrens “to be hidden cultural treasures in our state. ... Their sleds have garnered them worldwide respect for their blending of artistry and function, traditionalism and innovation.”
Nearing 70, Paul semi-retired this year, closing the sled building business Darlene and he operated for more than 30 years in VEC territory on their property east of Minot. He continues making snowshoes and is contemplating some new woodcraft endeavors, such as making furniture and trunks. He also makes archery equipment and enjoys the sport himself.
“It kind of takes the pressure off when you don't have a business and you don’t have to produce,” he reflected. “Now I can enjoy the artistic creation more.”

Piehl, too, is spending more time in the creative process. He has limited teaching at MSU to one class per semester, but says he’s not willing to retire completely.

“Being on the campus is my social life as well as my professional life,” he commented. “It keeps me connected with students and a community of artists.”

MSU’s Walter Piehl Gallery, still in planning stages, will permanently house a collection of Piehl’s work. The Prairie Public documentary, “Walter Piehl: Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” documents Piehl’s art through the years, focusing on cowboy and rodeo series he has painted. Piehl continues to experiment with his style, and is working now with collages or materials that he uses as backgrounds, painting images on them of what he terms “still lifes,” such as boots, saddles and tack.

Among Piehl’s additional honors and awards is the 2008 Enduring Visions Award from the Bush Foundation; he was among three people selected for the prestigious $100,000 award. His paintings can be found in permanent collections throughout the United States. Piehl and his wife, Becky, have lived in VEC territory near Logan since 1975. To view Piehl’s work, go online to

NDCA has published a full color publication, “Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folklore and Folk Art of the Northern Great Plains.” The Bergrens and other National Heritage Fellow recipients are included in its content. The book is available at Barnes and Noble or directly from NDCA at

Candi Helseth is a freelance writer from Minot


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