James “Spid” Pieper – Artistic on Several Levels

By Michael Casper

James “Spid” PieperIt was the late 70’s when I first heard of ‘some guy’ named “Spid” who was playing at Arbuckles in downtown Fond du Lac. We checked him out, after all…we had no money, and there was no cover. There he was on a makeshift stage of carpeted plywood atop some cases of beer. He was playing guitar, and playing harmonica with one of those mouth harp brackets around his neck. I’m sure those things have a specific name, they look like those giant dental retainer-things kids have to wear to bed at night…I don’t know their name either, but I think you get the picture.

There stood Spiddy, in a single spotlight, singing some Dylan, John Prine, Neil Young…whatever…he knew them all. He also had a catalog of his own original songs which over the years became crowd favorites, and eventual classics including, ‘I’d rather Be Fishin’ and ‘Nobody’ll Hang Around With Ernie.’

It wasn’t until many years later that I came to realize that Spid had yet another talent, and that was possessing the eye for detail, and the deft and meticulous touch it takes to transfer what he saw from his hand and paint brush to canvas.

Michael: Photographer also needs to be part of one’s skill set to be a wildlife artist.

Spid: Pretty much. You look at the photographs you have to work from and you think, ‘which one of these can I make the best stamp design out of?’ And that’s how it came to be for my entry, and many entries over the years.

Michael: You spend a lot of time around the Horicon Marsh, and have since you were a youngster.

James_1Spid: I’ve been tromping around on the marsh with my relatives forever, and I absorbed it naturally without even thinking about it. I almost drowned on the marsh. When I was a young kid, my cousin and I were camping on Strawberry Island over by Burnett Ditch and he had to go in to work to help his dad who ran the general store in Burnett, and I was supposed to go pick him up. I got in this little, flat duck skiff and headed across the ditch from the island and somehow I managed to flip the darn thing over. And I’m looking down in the water and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, it’s 3 feet deep, no big deal. I’ll just stand on the bottom and walk to shore.’ Well, it’s all muck, like quicksand that’s another 4 feet deep under the water and it grabs ahold of you and you can’t get out of it. I went into a major panic! Luckily, I managed to get ahold of that boat, and kicked the boat to shore. I was probably about 13 years old at the time. That was exciting (laugh).

Michael: You grew up drawing.Spid: I did art as a kid. I sat in front of the T.V. and drew pictures of the Green Bay Packers since as long as I could stand up. I went to art school, I went to MATC for commercial art for a while and I really didn’t have any idea that there was wildlife art and there was a possibility that you could find people who were interested in it. And then I was in Wisconsin Dells, and wandered into the Holiday Gift Shop and saw Owen Gromme’s work. They had all of his originals in there. And back in the day when I was playing at Arbuckle’s I got to talking to Donny Kloetzke, who is a nationally known wildlife artist, and he was the one who started telling me about these stamp contests. I didn’t know a thing about them before that. I didn’t particularly care to hunt back then so I didn’t know anything about buying a duck stamp or how they were made. Donny filled me in on all that stuff and got me involved in it.


Michael: For your contest entry this year you decided on the Teal.

Spid: There are a lot of Blue-Winged Teal out on the marsh, which anytime you go out on Highway 49 or on the marsh, it’s one of the birds besides the Shoveler’s that you see all the time. Teal leave this area so early. As soon as we get the slightest little nip of cold weather, they’re gone.

Michael: What’s the process of entering the contest?

Spid: In Wisconsin you do have to be a state resident. I tried real hard to find out from the DNR how many people were entered in the contest and I couldn’t find it anywhere. What I did find was that there were a total of 36 entries in all 3 contests, meaning turkey, pheasant and duck. They didn’t divide it up with who was in what.

Michael: You won the turkey stamp in 1993, and the duck stamp in 2011.

Spid: I’ve been slaving away at these stamp contests for a long, long time hoping someday to win the Federal, and I’m getting a little closer but I’m not where I want to be yet. Late last fall, early winter, the Hautman Brothers, from Minnesota, who have won the Federal duck stamp ten times between them, had an exhibit up in a suburb of Minneapolis. My wife Christa and I went up to the show, and that kind of opened my eyes to a few things that they’re doing. These guys are good. You think to yourself, ‘How in the world did three guys, all brothers, get that knowledgeable about what looks good in a painting,’ it’s just amazing. I saw how they used the backgrounds to emphasize the subject of the painting in ways that I hadn’t been utilizing. I saw how they created certain types of edges between different colored surfaces that made the subject matter look more attractive or stand out more.

Michael: An artist always appreciates another set of eyes.

Spid: And that’s my wife. Almost everyday I show my work to Christa, to get her view, and opinion on how things are progressing, or not. Getting her suggestions for improvement…her input is invaluable.

Michael: Your family influenced your love of the great outdoors as well?

Spid: About a year ago a Horicon Marsh History, by Donald Miescke was published. My family gets mentioned a lot…all these ties to the marsh and that’s probably one of the influences that got me involved in painting wildlife. My dad and uncle are mentioned in this book. There’s about three pages on my uncle talking about how he and my dad went out one day and shot their limit of 10 ducks in a half an hour because there were so many ducks out on the marsh back in the 30’s or 40’s. One side of my family had all these relatives that lived on part of the marsh. The other side of my family was the Strook family. Strook’s Ditch on the marsh is who that’s named after. Also Strook’s Hunting Club out on the marsh. That’s my mother’s side. So I’ve had a lot of relatives associated with the marsh over the years.

Michael: And DNR Wildlife Biologist Bill Volkert gave you some advice?

Spid: He was another influence that steered me in the direction of painting duck stamps. By accident, many years ago, I met Bill, he happened to live next to friends of ours over between Campbellsport and Dundee. We were out with our friends, cutting firewood one day and we had also invited Bill along. We’re out there cutting the wood and this hawk goes sailing over our heads and I said, ‘Oh look, a Marsh Hawk.’ And Bill goes, “That’s not a Marsh Hawk, that’s a Red-Tail Hawk. They don’t look anything alike.’ And I thought, whoa, I guess I better start brushing up on my identifications of birds (laugh). So, Bill got me to actually study, to know what birds were which, and identify plants also, to the point now where some people that know me say, ‘If you want to know what something is, you just talk to Spid. He knows all that stuff. He’s like a walking encyclopedia.’


Michael: You’ve entered the Federal Stamp contest again, what breed did you go with?

Spid: It’s Shovelers again. It’s one of the five choices, but if Shovelers were to win this year, and if I was to win this year, it would be 70 years since the Shoveler has won and the last person to win with the Shoveler was Owen Gromme in 1945. So I’m thinking, and hoping there’s got to be a little karma going for me here! Michael: What are you working on now?

Spid: I’m not working on any stamp contests at the current time. I want to start doing some landscapes from photos that I’ve taken over the years that would look good hanging on somebody’s wall. Something that might become “décor.” I’ve got about 6 of them picked out that I’m going to work on this winter. Some from each season. Some of them are farmscapes, a couple of them are frosty, winter mornings, and a couple of beautiful fall scenes that I shot up north over the past couple of years. The photographs that I’m using don’t have anything other than the trees in them, but within the paintings I’m planning on introducing some kind of wildlife.

james_4Michael: Another niche style you’ve created are your silhouette prints.

Spid: I haven’t done any in a while. I have a couple of new ideas, and I want to do a couple of those too. I had done all the other ones with animals and now I’m thinking I want to do one with kayaks, possibly off of Bayfield, like the Apostle Islands, because that’s big kayak country up there. People love going out there on their kayaks. And I want to do a new one within the silhouette of a canoe.

Find Spid’s brilliance at or catch him in a tavern somewhere in southeastern Wisconsin, as he still performs on makeshift stages. He’ll be the one in the single spotlight, with his guitar, wearing that dental bracket-thing around his neck.

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