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Hole-in-the-wall in flooding Minot

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What do you do for laughs if you're an artist, an art professor and your mother is an ardent, teetotaling member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)? You buy an old building and establish a tavern, of course.

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The current flood in Minot calls to memory the story of Walter Piehl, one of North Dakota's best-known artists, also an art professor at Minot State University. In 1974, Piehl and his wife bought an old abandoned wood frame building and opened North Dakota's first smoke free bar. The little shop, now 100 years old, was the oldest wooden building still standing in Minot. Then Piehl invited artist friends, professional, amateur and students, to hang their art on his walls. The pieces came and went and were sometimes sold right off the wall. He also had some stuffed animals loitering around -- a stuffed boar wearing a Happy New Year tiara, a moosehead wearing a fedora and a deer in a cone-shaped party hat. Add a vault holding pool cues, but there is no pool table.

The place was painted burnt orange and named The Blue Rider in honor of a 20th century movement of German expressionist artists known as Der Blau Reiter (The Blue Rider) because the artists were, like Piehl, strong believers in color. Along came a visitor in 1999, another renowned North Dakota artist, Fritz Scholder, who volunteered to paint a genuine Blue Rider on the wall -- a cowboy on a bucking bronc, obscure, ghostlike figures, both of them. Then Rudy Wall, a Minot State art student, now a bartender at the tavern, painted a parody of The Blue Rider, hanging near the original, signed "Get off my Scholder."

The Blue Rider painting remains on the wall to this day, but as the furniture and paintings of the tavern are being removed ahead of the flood, there is The Blue Rider permanently painted on the wall. Piehl says the painting is probably worth more than the entire tavern and maybe the wall should be cut out and removed. The well-known Scholder died in 2005, and was posthumously inducted into the California Museum's Hall of Fame in 2009.

When you visit Minot, as we do from time to time because it's where friends live, it's close to where we grew up and because we met at Minot State, our friends insist on taking us to the cultural meccas of the city. If you're a columnist, professional duty and curiosity compel you to go where the story is, even if it's fishing, a ballgame or a tavern. So we went. He wasn't working, but the artist-owner Walter Piehl was there, holding court as they say, in a big cowboy hat. In visiting with him, we even discovered we had mutual acquaintances.

Piehl's mother, dry and big in the WCTU, was of the impression that her artistic son's venture was that his little business was a pop and juice stand, where a little beer and wine were occasionally sold. He never discouraged her illusions.

A visit to the bathroom at The Blue Rider is not just a visit to an ordinary bathroom. It's a tiny art gallery. There are another dozen paintings on the walls of that little 4 x 4 foot cubicle, so you really need to take a bit of extra time to make sure you don't miss any of the culture. The entire Blue Rider experience, inside and outside the bathroom, leads you to agree with the folks in Minot that the place is a hole-in-the-wall like no other.

At this writing, the floodwaters in Minot are cresting and The Blue Rider folks and much of Minot are taking what they can carry and shuttling off to higher ground. This has been a season of tornados, fires, floods, death and destruction, a time of unbelievable loss and tragedy for thousands in our country, a time for sympathy, prayers and help in whatever form we can provide for our neighbors, brothers and sisters.

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