Alaskan artist recalls life on MI

Rie Munoz has an eye for Alaska. Eskimos drying out walrus skins. Fishermen pulling in their catch. Children playing in the snow. And Alaskans love her for it.

Arguably the 49th state’s most iconic artist, Munoz has published over 500 watercolors, stencils, silkscreens and lithographs of “people and their lifestyles.” And at 86, she has no desire to stop. Just last week, the Juneau resident released a new silkscreen entitled “Reindeer Roundup.” And she’s already wet the canvas of her next painting — an image of a man smoking salmon.

Over the past three decades, her colorful portrayals of Alaskan life have found a second home in Seattle. The Frye Art Museum is particularly fond of Munoz’s work, and has hosted half a dozen exhibits in 30 years. Her expressionistic paintings and silkscreens can be found in galleries throughout the city, as well as in Bellevue and Orcas Island. Those who know her art often collect it. And those who collect it, adore it.

In 1950, Munoz was a quixotic Californian eager to see the world. One day she scraped all her money together and set off to visit Alaska, traveling up the Inside Passage by steamship. The boat docked at Juneau. Overwhelmed by Alaska’s beauty, Munoz couldn’t bare to leave. The free-spirit gave herself one day to find a job and place to live. Before the ship even left port, Munoz had been hired at the local newspaper. From that day on, Juneau would be her home.

Today, Munoz resides in a small, hillside house overlooking downtown Juneau and the Gastineau Channel. While she loves to paint life within the rustic Alaskan capital, the artist also thrives on adventure, traveling to remote Eskimo villages in the far north, to the countryside of France, the beaches of California, the Islands of San Juan and to one of her favorite cities — Seattle.

Indeed, Munoz has led an exotic life, having lived in villages and cities across the world, one of which happens to be our own Mercer Island.

In 1957 Munoz’s husband, Juan, was hired as a geologist for a project based in Seattle. The young couple found a house to rent on Mercer Island, just off East Mercer Way, where they lived for nearly a year. Although Munoz doesn’t recall every detail of life on the Island in 1957, a few vignettes are crystal clear — her kitchen-window view of the East Channel Bridge, the speed boats racing across Lake Washington, and those pesky Canadian geese that would graze on her lawn. How she loved those Canadian geese.

What do you think it is that draws people — especially Alaskans and those of us in the Pacific Northwest — to your art?

I think the reason people relate to my art is that I always paint pictures of people doing things. And my style is very simple. I think people like that. I mostly developed my style on my own. I started drawing as a child, and very early. The reason I started early is that I was half-way good. If you’re good at basketball, that’s what you’re going to do. If you’re good at anything, you keep it up. It’s as simple as that. So here I was drawing, and I just kept going — just oodles and oodles of drawings and paintings. I’ve always loved to paint simple things, to sketch the people around me.

Outside Alaska, Seattle is a city where your art has found a welcome niche. What are your feelings about Seattle, as a city and subject for your art?

As a city, I like it a heck of a lot. It’s the easiest place to get to from Alaska, whether by ship or plane. I love the fact that you can hop on a ferry and go to so many places. Pike Place Market is one of my favorite places to go and paint. And I love to eat crab there. Recently I painted a person selling flowers in Pike Place.

I always spend a few days in Seattle in between my flights to California or anywhere else. When I’m there I like to visit Pike Place Market and sketch, and to wander the museums. I like the Seattle Art Museum and I like the galleries in general. I always make sure to go visit the Frye Museum; I walk right down after my annual eye check at Virginia Mason.

What are your memories of Mercer Island? What was it like in 1957?

What I remember most about living on Mercer Island are those very fast boats — with the rooster tails — they were great to watch. They were out there practicing on the lake quite frequently.

We had a house on the water, just off East Mercer Way, practically under the East Channel Bridge. There was nothing under it at the time, and I lived right next to that nothing. I remember the Canadian geese would come to eat on my grass. I’m sure a lot of people in Seattle think it’s a bother, but I just loved it when they came. In fact, I sketched them right there.

I didn’t pay much attention to downtown Mercer Island. As far as I recall, there was only a gas station and few other buildings on the Island. If I went shopping, I usually went to the mainland. But I liked living on the Island.

Actually, 1957 wasn’t the first time I came to Mercer Island. The first time I came to the Island was when I was living in California with my parents — it must have been around 1931. We were visiting Seattle and went to Mercer Island for a dinner party with friends, the Beaufort family. At that time you had to go by boat, and the only roads [on the Island] were dirt ones through the woods. I thought it was a lot of fun going across the lake in an itty-bitty little ferry and driving through the woods.

Did you socialize with many people on the Island? Did you ever paint them?

We were only there a year, so I didn’t meet too many people. At the time I thought there were a lot of people on the Island. There were a lot of doctors, as I remember. But probably nothing compared to now, I imagine.

I’d walk my dog and meet people walking their dogs. Our area wasn’t that populated, there was woods nearby where I would take him. I didn’t paint too many people. On Mercer Island you don’t see much lifestyle. I guess if you trespass on people’s land and watch them launching a boat in their front yard — that would be fun. Somebody painting his boat. But you don’t automatically see that because it’s private property. What I did paint was that bridge from my angle. And I think I did a picture of one of those speedboats. I mostly just remember that bridge — I was practically underneath it.

In Seattle, your work is very much associated with the Frye Art Museum. How has the Frye helped your career over the years?

It certainly helped me with my art. Randa K. Greathouse was the wonderful person who ran the museum when my work was first shown. She was a great business woman and art connoisseur. She came to Juneau in the ‘70s to check out Sydney Laurence’s paintings. I was working at the [Alaska State Museum] at the time and had an office with my paintings hanging. She saw them and asked if I’d like to have a show at the Frye. She had me back three or four times.

After that I sold my paintings and silkscreen prints to several galleries in Seattle. And they sold very well there. I was surprised that Alaskan-type paintings of the kind I did would sell in Seattle. I was happily surprised.

A gallery on Mercer Island also sold my prints. I had two shows on Mercer Island — some time in the ‘80s or ‘90s. I remember at one show they had a guard standing at the door, and I thought that’s probably not necessary — as if I were Rembrandt himself! I thought, gosh, that’s weird. If the gallery had been in a slum area, that would be little different. But of all places on safe Mercer Island!

What attracts you to small-town settings?

I just love small towns. The lifestyle of small towns seems to be more simple in a way — at least up here in Juneau. I like simple things, small villages, the way the people do things. For example, here in Alaska they still hang their clothes out to dry.

The majority of your paintings focus on Alaska and its inhabitants. Is there something particular about Alaska’s beauty that inspires your art, or could you paint any place?

Oh, I could paint anywhere. These days I go down to California for two months each winter. I live on a very steep hill here [in Juneau] and love to walk. In the winter, at age 86, you’re going to slip. I don’t want to fall and break my head or spend all my time shoveling snow, so it’s nice to be a snowbird and take off for warmer climates in the winter. I leave here in January and rent a little house in Morro Bay, California. I take my sketch books with me and enjoy the sun.

I love Alaska, but I could paint any people anywhere in the world. I would love to go to Africa and paint those wonderful bright-colored clothes that the women there wear. I would love to pick up their lifestyle and paint what they do. That’s what I like about Alaska — the lifestyle of the people here. But I could paint the lifestyle of people anywhere.

You have lived quite an exotic life. Do you still have that adventurous spirit? Will you continue to venture off and find new landscapes?

I have always had this adventurous spirit. This coming March I’m going to Nome to watch the Iditarod dog-sled race. And I hope that I’ll always be painting. There’s no reason to retire, unless your eyes really fail you. My eyes aren’t great, but they’re good enough to paint. Right now, I’m painting a man who is smoking some salmon in his front yard. I just have to wear glasses.

Looking back, what are you most proud of?

I can’t think of just one thing. I’m very happy with my life as a whole. And I love living here [in Juneau]. I have one son who lives here, a very nice daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. I speak with many men and women who say they’re flying off to some distant city to see their grandchildren. I see mine all the time. I don’t have to fly off. I think I’m very lucky in that respect.

Speaking of your family, your son Juan has been your publicist and run your gallery in Juneau for more than 30 years now. How is it working with your son?

That has been the best thing that ever happened to me. There is so much to do that’s related with being a professional artist. If I had to do it all, I wouldn’t have time to paint anymore. So I just paint and Juan does everything else. I’m exceedingly lucky from that standpoint.

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