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In 1953, when he was eight years old, artist Walt Spitzmiller's mother took him to a rodeo in his hometown of St. Louis. It was an amateur performance, and the "stadium" where it was held is now a parking lot, but Spitzmiller can close his eyes at his West Redding, Conn. home, where he lives with his wife and two children, and still see it. "What I remember most," he says, "is the crowd, the opening ceremony and the bulls—the bull riding."
Twenty-six years later, Spitzmiller received an opportunity few free-lance artists ever get: a chance to choose his own subject. Ordinarily, artists are asked to illustrate an article already written, but three years ago Dick Gangel, SI's long-time art director who retired last September, said to Spitzmiller, "You've done everything we've ever assigned—what would you like to do?" Spitzmiller thought about it for a while and chose—you got it—rodeo.
Over a period of a year and a half he traveled, between assignments, approximately 15,000 miles, going first to the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, then to the First Annual Rodeo of New Orleans and finally to Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., which bills itself as "The Daddy of Them All" and attracts 1,800 contestants. He accumulated masses of photographs, sketches and notes and an abiding respect for rodeo people.
"I got really interested in the cowboy as an athlete," says Spitzmiller. "There are some similarities between a bull rider and an NFL linebacker. A bull will get you off and then try to injure you. He'll kick you, run over you; he won't stop. It's like when Earl Campbell came into the league. These defensive backs would say, 'Oh, Lord, here he comes again!' That's how cowboys feel about bulls."
Spitzmiller says he felt a strong identification with the cowboys, because as a free-lance artist he doesn't know where his next paycheck is coming from, and neither do they. Deputy Art Director Richard Warner, who accompanied Spitzmiller on that first trip to Oklahoma City, says, "Walt pondered this job for months before he did anything. A lot of artists can push paint around a canvas, but some, like Walt, transcend this. They put their intellect to use, as well as their skills."
Spitzmiller found his project for SI so absorbing that he continued to work and travel further on his own, and at the end he had done 30 paintings and drawings, plus a limited-edition lithograph. All this brought him full circle to Oklahoma City, where he had a one-man show at the Myriad Convention Center during this year's National Finals Rodeo two weeks ago. "The cowboys loved the paintings," says Spitzmiller. "They'd never seen their sport portrayed that way. The only negative comment I heard was from a cowboy's wife who said I didn't have enough 'ropers' in the show."
They must also have liked Spitzmiller, because they made him an honorary cowboy and gave him a lifetime membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. But does he want to be a cowboy? "I have no desire to get on a bull," he says, "but bareback riding intrigues me. Maybe if the horse was old and tired, I'd think about getting on one, but mostly I'm content just to watch."