Painting Alaska: Rie Muñoz opens show at Alaska State Museum

Local artist can count on two hands places she hasn't been in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2006

As late as her mid-20s, then-Los Angeles department store employee Rie Muñoz was barely into art. She sketched a little when she wrote letters, but she wasn't into painting.

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That all changed in the summer of 1950, when she took the steamship Princess Louise north from Vancouver, British Columbia, and first saw Juneau.

"The minute I came here, I thought, 'I have to paint this,'" she said.

And she has.

Muñoz departed the steamer, found a room (on Seventh Street) and a job (with the weekly Alaska Sunday Press) in less than 24 hours and has remained in Alaska for 55 1/2 years.

In that time, she's documented everyday Alaska scenes all over the state through her signature style in watercolors, oils, caseins, silkscreens, lithographs, stencils, stained glass and tapestry. More than 150 galleries carry her art, and her work is so popular in Southeast Alaska that it's virtually omnipresent in homes, restaurants, galleries and souvenir stores.

"Rie Muñoz Retrospective," a new exhibit at the Alaska State Museum, will collect some 150 originals, as well as some tapestries, stained glass and pottery, from her 55-year-career in Alaska. The earliest works are a 1951 painting of Hiccup, Munoz's Malamute on King Island, and "Ice Skaters," a 1964 painting of people skating on Auke Lake.

Though she has had exhibitions all over the United States, this is her first show at the Alaska State Museum since a 1982 collection of tapestries, and her first watercolor show at the museum since a joint 1971 show with Skip Wallen. Muñoz was the curator of collections at the museum from 1968 to 1972.

The exhibit opens at 12 p.m. Saturday, May 13, as part of the citywide Juneau Museum Day celebration and runs through Sept. 13. Muñoz will be at the opening reception from noon to 3 p.m.

Muñoz, 84, paints every day and completes 20 to 25 paintings a year - down from 100 a year in 1983. She releases three or four new prints every few months. Muñoz spends one to three months a year at a Tenakee Springs cabin she has owned since 1974. When she's not traveling, sketching and painting throughout the state, she spends the rest of the year at the Starr Hill home she bought for $7,000 in 1968. This year, she also plans to spend a month in Dutch Harbor.

"I try to go to as many places as I can in Alaska that I've never gone before," Muñoz said. "I think I can count on two hands the places I've not been to in Alaska. I've never been to Dillingham or Sleetmute. I've been to the Pribiloff Islands, Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Sand Point. One place I haven't been to in Southeast Alaska is Kake. I haven't been to Baranof Hot Springs, and I haven't been beyond Dutch Harbor."

Muñoz is known for her love of documenting Alaskans doing Alaska-type things, and her style is easily identifiable. Her faces tend to be round, with rosy cheeks and two dots for eyes. Her animals are iconic rather than biologically exact. And her composition and perspective, especially in the last 25 years, often borders on cubism.

"My work is not abstract, but it's certainly not photo-realistic either. And you know, an artist can do anything they want," Muñoz said. "I don't even try for a likeness, because I can't do likenesses. It's just the activity that's going on that I'm interested in. The only thing I do correctly are crabs. The Dungeness have five legs on a side, and the king crab only has four."

Muñoz does virtually all of her painting in one of her studios, after referring to or mapping out ideas in one of her sketchbooks. She's saved 120 sketchpads from throughout her career and rarely leaves the house without one. She carries them in what she jokingly calls her "shoplifting pocket," a large pocket on the inside of her coat.

"I was just at the Virginia Mason clinic down in Seattle and it was a Sunday and everything was closed and it was raining," Muñoz said. "So I sat in the lobby and sketched 100 people who came in and out.

"If I go to a certain place, like St. Lawrence Island, and there's nothing going on at the moment, I'll sketch anything," she said. "I'll sketch an oil drum or a seal skin hanging out to dry, so that when I do a picture, if I want to put an oil drum in it, I'll know exactly what that oil drum looked like."

Muñoz spent a little less than a year at the Alaska Sunday Press. She married Juan Muñoz, and they left for King Island, a tiny cliffside community 13 hours west of Nome by sealskin boat. She taught there from 1951 to 1952, then returned to Juneau and found a job as editorial cartoonist at the Daily Alaska Empire. She divorced in 1963, and left the Empire in 1967. After four years at the museum, she turned to art full-time. Her son, Juan, now runs the Rie Muñoz Gallery, near Jordan Creek in the Mendenhall Valley.

When she first arrived in Juneau, Muñoz painted on canvas in oils and aimed for extremely realistic paintings. That quickly changed when she was introduced to caseins, a paint resembling watercolors, in 1951.

"It totally changed my style practically overnight, just because I wasn't so concerned about the value of what I was painting with or what I was painting on," Muñoz said. "I didn't have to do the world's greatest painting. If it was no good, I could just throw it away. I just started having fun with birds and people and buildings.

"I see something in my mind and it never comes out like that on the paper," she said. "I'm just trying to improve. If you're still painting as you did back in 1950, then you might as well quit. You should be constantly learning."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

what: a celebration of juneau museum day and national historic preseveration month, on saturday, may 13

hours: museums and historic sites are open from 12 to 5 p.m.

admission: all events are free.

alaska state museum: "rie muñoz: a retrospective." muñoz will be on hand between noon and 3 p.m. "alaska's watchable whales," by john hyde and mark kelley, is also on display.

juneau-douglas city museum: opening "politics, personalities and power," a permanent exhibit on juneau as alaska's capital city; and "her passion for painting: francis caroline brooks davis," an exhibit by one of juneau's earliest artists. at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., the city museum will offer a preview of its guided walking tour, "genuine juneau, 1925."

last chance mining museum, end of basin road: begins the summer season with a sing-along of the alaska flag song and a flag-raising at noon. volunteers will run a 1905 gage hit-and-miss gas engine throughout the afternoon. visitors can also pan for gold in gold creek at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

st. nicholas russian orthodox church, fifth and gold streets: tours of the oldest russian orthodox church in southeast and lecture about russian-american and russian orthodox history.

tom pittman mining and geology museum, mayflower island, douglas: exhibiting hundreds of minerals, rocks and fossils along with photos and artifacts from juneau's historic mining days. visitors can collect an alaska mineral specimen and pick up an alaska mineral poster.

free shuttle buses: participants can park at the alaska state museum on whittier street and take the free buses. one shuttle will transport visitors between the museum and the tom pittman museum on mayflower island, douglas. the other will transport visitors between the city museum, last chance mining museum, st. nicholas church and the state museum.

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