School of Art graduate student surprises Bill Walton with repainted chair

Bill Walton sitting on a chair with arms extended

Bill Walton is surprised with a custom chair before the men’s basketball vs. Washington State in McKale Center. The chair was painted by School of Art grad student Gabrielle Walter.

Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

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 chair in McKale Memorial Center 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, a Master of Fine Arts 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."

a yellow chair with designs painted on it

Walter incorporated imagery from some of Walton's favorite things, including the Grateful Dead, the Sonoran Desert and Tucson.

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.

"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.

Bill Walton and Gabi Walter talking via Zoom

Walter chats with Walton via Zoom.

Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

"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 your 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.

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.

"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 University. 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

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

Mike Chesnick/School of Art

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.

A version of this article originally appeared on the School of Art website.

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