Artist who defies age

Rie Munoz continues to win fans and recognition despite her eight decades

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

At an age when many folks have been retired for more than a dozen years, Juneau painter Rie Munoz, 79, is still going strong.

"I don't think artists ever retire, do you? Why should they - unless their eyesight fails. No. I'll never retire. I like to paint," she said Monday. "I do paint every day, if I can. I'm painting this very minute."

Munoz flew to Seattle this week as the honored guest of the Pacific Rim Art Exposition, the third-largest annual art show in America. She's been named the Artist of the Year at the exposition, an honor held in past years by noted painters such as Robert Batemen, Bev Doolittle and Carl Brenders. About 8,000 people are expected to attend the three-day event.

Bob Farrelly, the director of the exposition, explained why Munoz was selected.

"She is probably one of the most popular artists in the country," Farrelly said. "She's also a wonderful personality."

Munoz' work is dominated by Alaska themes fishing, berry picking and life in small villages and Juneau neighborhoods and usually features Alaskans clad in vivid colors.

But her expressionistic paintings speak to people across America, said Bill Lindsay, who owns a gallery in Olympia, Wash. His is one of the 200 galleries in America that carry her work. He's sold Munoz' prints for 22 years.

Lindsay said she captures details of people's everyday lives in such a way that people can see themselves in the paintings.

Munoz' son, Juan, said she captures the friendly, warm spirit of Alaska.

"A lot of people who used to live or work in Alaska, or have family here, are really attracted to Rie's work. The artwork is cheerful. You won't see a lot of smiley faces. She conveys this cheerful feeling through the use of color, composition and subject matter," he said. "She's painting more of the spirit than the realistic attributes."

Lindsay agreed. He said the demand for her work has grown so much that five years ago he dropped all other artists and now deals only in Munoz' prints.

"Her work is in hospitals all over down here and they say the same thing. It's uplifting."

It took Munoz years to develop her style. Don Peagues of Tenakee Springs recalls some of her early paintings, which were strikingly realistic. Peagues met Munoz 50 years ago, just days after she stepped onto the steamship dock and declared Juneau her new home. Peagues' mother owned The Sunday Press, a Juneau weekly newspaper that gave young Marie Mounier, known as "Rie," her first job in town.

Peagues, who was manager of Pan American World Airways in Juneau, said Munoz was hired to paint murals on the walls of the seaplane base and at the airline's offices in Ketchikan. She used prominent Juneau citizens as models for a large mural she painted in a South Franklin Street bar in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s she painted a realistic mural of Chilkat dancers that still adorns a wall at the Juneau airport.

Not long after her arrival in Juneau, she married a geologist named Juan Munoz. They prospected and traveled throughout Alaska and taught for a year at King Island in the Bering Sea. They co-wrote an article on their King Island experience, published in National Geographic in 1954. They spent the earnings on a boat they used to prospect around Southeast.

After they split up in 1963 she held a variety of jobs while also pursuing art. She worked as a Juneau Empire reporter, editor and cartoonist and worked for the Alaska State Museum. She also continued her travels through Alaska, sketching and painting all the way.

Peagues remembers when she began moving away from realism.

"It was different from anybody else. We'd never seen anything in her style before I've seen copycats since, but when she came out with that style we'd never seen anything like it, the way she portrays people and their settings," he said.

Munoz said she developed her style when she gave up oil paints and began working with watercolors.

"I used to paint realistically when I painted oils. But they were boring, honestly. Then someone introduced me to casein paint. It's cheaper than oil, and you paint on paper, which is cheaper than canvas," she said. She found painting with watercolors gave her a looser, freer style.


"I do paintings of all sorts of people. I sketch them, but I never even try for a likeness. Usually they're somewhat plump, because they're more fun to draw than skinny people," she said.

Munoz, who lives in Tenakee Springs part of the year, said because she doesn't depict people realistically, her subjects are more willing to be captured even bathing in the public hot springs bathhouse at Tenakee.

"I can even sketch women in the bath because they know it's not going to look like them. I don't even try," she said. "I just make people out of them."

Peagues said folks in Tenakee can tell who is who, even if no one else can.

"She captures something," he said. "She's got a good take on life. She sits on a bench with her sketch pad, and the way she portrays them in her paintings, with a certain type of coat or hat, we know who they are. Even the dogs. We recognize every dog in her paintings."

Munoz' sketch books are a constant source of inspiration. She'll pull out a sketch she drew 10 years ago in an Arctic village and begin a painting.

"I have 119 or 120 sketch books. You never throw them out, you know, you can always go back to them. I'll think, ' What'll I paint today,' and breeze through them," she said.

Over the years, Munoz has experimented with a variety of techniques and styles. She produced lithographs and linoleum block prints, serigraphs and stencil prints. She even did an abstract painting, which Bruce Elliot developed into the 8-by-12-foot stained glass window in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum that faces the state capitol.

A few years ago she had some of her paintings woven as tapestries.

"I got into that for the simple reason that I love to go to France. I had them done there they're tops at doing tapestries there," she said.

Munoz' son, Juan, serves as her business manager, which frees her to paint full-time. Her prints sell for about $100 apiece. Her original watercolors average about $3,500, with larger works selling for as much as $12,000.

This weekend Munoz will present a slide show and retrospective of her paintings at the Seattle art exposition, tracing almost half a century of work. She's looking forward to it.

"I get to meet lots of people," she said. "I like people."

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