Grad student Walter surprises Walton with repainted chair

Basketball television analyst Bill Walton is a huge Grateful Dead fan. As luck would have it, the University of Arizona School of Art graduate student tasked with repainting his special McKale Center chair also shares his love for the eclectic rock band.

“I’m a big fan, so I originally did a design where it was all Grateful Dead,” said Gabrielle Walter, an MFA candidate in Illustration and Design. “But then I did some research on Mr. Walton, and I realized he also loves the Sonoran Desert and Tucson.”

Gabrielle Walter chats with Bill Walton via Zoom. Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics

So Walter incorporated more desert artwork on the seat and a small university logo on the back, while still including two small skull and lightning bolts – the band’s iconic logo – on the front. The lettering on the back, with the band’s font, simply says “Bill’s Chair.”

“I wanted to make sure the design was a culmination of all the things near and dear to his heart,” Walter said.

The finished product left Walton almost speechless on Jan. 7, when Arizona Athletics presented the yellow chair to Walton before the men’s basketball game against Washington State. Walter, who goes by “Gabi,” attended via Zoom and chatted with Walton as School of Art Director Colin Blakely and Assistant Director Karen Zimmermann looked on along with University of Arizona President Robert Robbins and Director of Athletics Dave Heeke.

Walter’s design incorporates Grateful Dead logos and Sonoran Desert artwork.

“Oh, my. Look at this chair,” Walton said after it was unveiled at center court. “You’re incredible, Gabi. How did you know I like all this stuff?”

The new paint job idea came out of a meeting between College of Fine Arts Dean Andrew Schulz and Matt Ensor, assistant athletic director for communications.

“Obviously Bill is an iconic fixture in all walks of life and a champion of the University of Arizona,” Ensor said. “Once the idea came out in conversation with Andy, it was off and running.”

Walter ran her design ideas by Blakely, Zimmermann and Arizona Athletics. Walter sandblasted the chair to begin with, then had it finished with a protective coating afterward.

“When you get artists involved like Gabi, this is how cool you chair can look,” Blakely told Walton.

“Yes, I now have an ultimate destination (on press row),” said Walton, admiring the chair, which will stay in McKale.

“Bill’s Chair.” Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics

The tall chair makes the 7-foot Walton seem even more imposing. A member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, the center led UCLA to two NCAA titles and helped the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics win NBA championships in a stellar professional career.

His career took a toll on his body — Walton has had nearly 40 orthopedic surgeries, including several on his back — so he asked the University of Arizona years ago to order him a plain gray metal chair that helped his posture during the games.

To spruce up the chair, the School of Art ordered some enamel paints, and “I was lucky enough to get to do all of the detail work by hand,” Walter said. “A lot of the imagery is inspired by the Saguaro National Forest and the plants found there.”

Walter grew up in Houston and listened to her family to stay in Texas for her undergraduate degree, which she earned at Texas Tech. She loved Lubbock, creating a mural there, but said she was “ecstatic” when she was accepted into the University of Arizona School of Art.

Gabi Walter designed the bandanas to welcome new art students last fall. 

Her partner, a graduate student in Omaha, Nebraska, also is a huge Grateful Dead fan. Walter plans to move to Omaha to be with him after graduation in May.

Walter is a graduate assistant for the School of Art, teaching studio art classes for First Year Experience students.

“I really love teaching,” Walter said. “I also worked with high school students as an undergrad at Texas Tech. I realized how much a difference you can make as a teacher.”

She certainly made an impression with Walton.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “Spectacular job, Gabi. Empty the Thesaurus. You did it right here.”

Walton added: “I need my chair, and now I have a special one, and I can beam ever more proudly.”

“I’m happy to do anything for a fellow Deadhead,” Walter said.

Alum of the Year Meyer excels in art and advertising

From his first job designing sofa ads for a small firm to developing a national advertising campaign for Walgreens, John Meyer has always understood the importance of making the right “pitch.”

It’s a skill he learned as an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona School of Art.

“The School of Art created a more focused foundation that helped bring out my talents to make myself more marketable,” Meyer said. “The U of A in general … also encouraged creativity and independent thought – while exposing me to other cultures and backgrounds.”

John Meyer listens to his introduction by Prof. Karen Zimmerman (top, left). (Photos by Jonalynne Bustamante)

Now an award-winning creative director, marketer, strategist and image maker, Meyer (BFA 1982, Studio Art) is being honored as the College of Fine Arts’ 2023 Alumnus of the Year — one of 15 alums being recognized by the university.

“I have developed campaigns from A to Z – Adobe to Zima. I would have to say that Walgreens, ‘At the Corner of Happy & Healthy,’ was my favorite because of the rebranding,” Meyer said. “I was responsible for the new creative campaign (in 2013), which affected over 100 million customers nationally.”

Meanwhile, Meyer and his former agency, Innerspin, squared off against another Los Angeles agency during the second season of the AMC television reality series “The Pitch.” The two firms battled to see who would help Bliss, a spa-inspired skincare company, launch its latest product, “Fuzz Off,” in the episode that aired in August 2013.

Innerspin won, led by Meyer, who devised an idea of a removable purple mustache sticker with the hashtag #fuzzyourself, which would be posted in various nighttime hotspots. “I love the stuff this guy does, I gotta tell you,” Meyer’s then-colleague, Elcid Choi, told Bliss executives during their pitch.

“It gave our whole agency an opportunity for exposure,” Meyer said. “We shot for 6 to 8 weeks in Los Angeles.”

John Meyer looked at student portfolios before his Alum of the Year ceremony. (Photo by Michael Chesnick)

Meyer had come a long way from his first job after graduation, working with a small design firm out of Huntington Beach, California. He rendered photos for Sunday newspaper print ads of sofas and chairs and worked on other local accounts, “which enabled me to create in several different categories – branding, retail and promotion.”

He secured his first big client, Burger King, during his next career move to JWT, a global advertising and branding agency.

“I didn’t give up,” Meyer said. “I kept improving my odds.”

Besides Walgreens, his other mega clients have included Apple, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Subway, Levi’s, McDonald’s, Chevron, Absolut Vodka, Pom Wonderful, TD Ameritrade and Virgin.

He’s now the chief creative officer of Absolutmeyer in Scottsdale, a firm he founded in 2015. “We’re finishing up a national rebranding effort for 3E Energy Drinks: ‘The Better for You Energy Drink,’” he said.

Meyer understands the importance of giving back, both to his alma mater and charities.

John Meyer helped students design these postcards when he taught a class for the School of Art in 2017.

“Teaching helped me understand the next wave of talent coming out of the university and gave me such a sense of pride,” said Meyer, who assisted students in getting internships with his firm and others across the country.

He also designed a series of Tucson-centric greeting cards, with a patriotic and western theme, while working with students in the Letterpress & Book Arts Lab run by Professor Karen Zimmermann, assistant director for the School of Art. “The cards are beautiful,” she said. 

A few years ago, he taught an Illustration and Design capstone class at the School of Art that focused on portfolios, branding, promotion, ethics and financial issues.

It’s been the best part of my career to give back to the school,” Meyer said. “It’s been very rewarding to have the ability to help mentor such deserving and talented students.”

Meyer has volunteered creative support for several non-profit groups, including the L.A. Epilepsy Foundation and the Prostate Cancer Foundation. “We’re on this planet to serve others,” said Meyer, who is grateful to doctors who helped one of his three children with epilepsy treatments.

“Hopefully, my career path and highlights will inspire others to achieve more than they dreamed,” Meyer said.

His advice to students?

“Give more than you’re paid to do ­– money will follow,” he said. “Visualize your future and stay positive. Keep pounding and don’t lose the faith.”

• John F. Meyer: 2023 CFA Alumnus of the Year

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