"Halibut $1" tapestry by Rie Munoz hangs in the entryway of the Juneau Empire building. The piece was commissioned by Empire owner Billy Morris.
Juneau Empire editorial page cartoonist Tony Newman, TOE, drew this cartoon for Rie Muñoz on her 90th birthday in August 2011.
Story last updated at 4/22/2015 - 6:06 pm
One of Rie Muñoz’ favorite pieces of her own work was “Peaceable Alaska,” a painting inspired by Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom.” Rie’s painting, completed in 1982, shows a young boy outside at night, surrounded by wild animals and trees, with no other people in sight. The boy leans up against a bear, his arm around its neck, while close around him stand a caribou, musk ox, fox, rabbit and other Alaskan creatures. The overwhelming feeling is of calm harmony, of potential dangers rendered safe.
“Peaceable Alaska,” while more fanciful than many of Rie’s pieces, highlights an important aspect of her work: it wasn’t intended to be realistic. Though she gathered visual information with the determination and energy of a true documentarian – traveling all over the state to sketch Alaskans doing what they do – in the end she was more interested in conveying emotion than in reproducing what she saw. Her Alaska radiates warmth and connection, even in the snow or the dark of a forest. It could be argued that this perspective had less to do with artistic whimsy and much more to do with the artist’s perception of the place she called home. Her paintings seem more true than real.
Rie’s son, Juan Jr., who owns the Rie Muñoz Gallery in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley, said his mother once received what she considered to be a great compliment from an Alaska Native elder who attended a show of her work in Anchorage. After carefully looking at some of her paintings of life in Alaska’s remote villages, he told her she seemed to understand the people portrayed in her art.
“Her artwork, that’s what it does,” Juan Jr. said. “It captures a spirit of a community or a person or a scene. It’s not realistic, but something about it touches you.”
Rie defined her style as expressionist. Her emphasis on people and animals in motion, accentuated by exaggerated curves, and her use of oranges, golds and umbers against the blue-green Alaskan landscape create an energy that is optimistic and playful – adjectives commonly used to describe Rie herself. Juan Jr. said the cheerful impression imparted by his mom’s work leads some to believe that all the people in her paintings are smiling, when in fact, few of them are.
“You can find maybe one out of a hundred,” he said. “She gets that happy feeling through color and composition.”
A positive outlook was integral to Rie’s personality, Juan Jr. said, and this outlook remained strong despite serious challenges, including the loss of her son, Felipe, at age 3 to cancer.
“She was terribly cheerful – but she had gone through hardships,” he said. “She was separated from her parents during World War II (for several years), and then in 1958 she lost her son, Felipe, my twin brother, and then in 1963 my mom and dad got a divorce. So she took a lot of hits but it just didn’t seem to matter for her spirit.”
AN ADVENTUROUS ALASKAN
Another quality Rie possessed in person that translated into her artwork was her skill as a storyteller, said longtime friend Judy Crondahl. Postcards from Rie, Judy said, were always written in tiny letters so she could fit as much in as possible, with sentences extending all around the edges of the card.
“She would probably be the last to admit it, but she was a great storyteller,” Judy said. “She would deny that she was a storyteller because all she was really telling you were things that had happened to her – but they were all these great stories!” Judy said, laughing.
Rie had so many stories in part because she actively sought out interesting experiences and adventures. Long before her arrival in Juneau in 1950, she’d become a seasoned traveler, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic by steamship 18 times by the time she was 18, according to introductory text in “Rie Muñoz: Portrait of Alaska.” (Her family, who was Dutch, split their time between Europe and the US when Rie was growing up.) By the time she made the trip to Juneau when she was 27, she’d gotten used to traveling alone.
Soon after she arrived in Juneau, however, she met a man whose sense of adventure matched hers: Juan Muñoz. The child of Cuban immigrants, Juan Sr. came to Alaska with a degree in mining geology and shared Rie’s “let’s try it” toughness and practical approach. Juan Jr. said even his parents’ honeymoon was noticeably lacking in creature comforts.
“My dad was so cheap, he said, ‘You know, Rie, instead of taking the train or a bus to Victoria, what do you say we hitchhike? And she said ‘Sure!’”
In 1951, the couple signed up to work as teachers on King Island, knowing little about it other than it was an overnight boat ride away from Nome. This well-documented trip spurred Rie’s lifelong interest in village life and in the physical work that living in remote locations demands. Rie’s descriptions of life on King island, described first-hand in the “King Island Journal” published in 2007 at Juan Jr.’s urging, convey a sense of wonder at the uniqueness of life on King Island, but also an eagerness to jump in and learn how things were done. Rie, who was around 30 at the time, made many sketches while she was there, some of which would later form the basis for paintings and illustrations.
“That really started her exploration of Alaska,” said Juan Jr. “(Later on) she traveled on every single road in Alaska and visited every village and town except for two.”
After they returned from King Island (with a dog named Hiccup in tow), Rie and Juan Sr. began preparing for their next adventure — prospecting. Juan Sr., a geologist with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, had heard about some intriguing possibilities on Prince of Wales Island, so they bought a boat and off they went. The boat purchase, however, nearly did them in, as it was a lake boat ill-suited to the rough waters between Juneau and Ketchikan. Close friend Jay Crondahl said that Rie told a great story about how the man who built the boat, Bob Wheeler of Juneau, tried to warn them before they left the harbor that his boat wouldn’t make it all the way to Ketchikan, but reached the harbor too late and spent the next few weeks nervously checking the newspaper for news of their shipwreck.
They made it eventually – barely – and once on Prince of Wales moved into an abandoned cabin and set up their lives. Though Rie had never had much experience as an outdoors woman, her writings indicate she took to the lifestyle quite easily. She chronicled her experiences in an illustrated article, “Prospecting is Our Life,” published in the Alaska Sportsman in 1962 and currently posted on www.rieMuñoz.com.
At one point she describes skinning a bear, despite not really knowing how to do it, and fighting clouds of mosquitoes as she went.
Several hours later the bear was skinned, and the rug now decorates our living room floor. To anyone whose glance falls upon it I say proudly, “That’s the bear I got in the Salt Chuck,” but I usually fail to add, “after Cliff Gardner shot it.”
In another passage, she describes coming back to camp with Juan Sr. after a long day of hiking through snow and fog, at times nearly losing their way, only to be frustrated in their goal of staking a claim.
After we had told them about the Shamrock, Warren Pellet said, “Oh well I guess you caught a lot of trout.”
“Nary a one,” Juan answered.
“Well, I guess seeing all the game helped to make up for it. Lots of goats and big grizzlies in that country.”
“Didn’t even see a bush wiggle.”
Warren’s face was all sympathy as he said, “Pretty lousy trip, eh?
“Lousy?” Juan cried. Why, we wouldn’t have traded it for all the tea in China!
And that’s the way I felt about it too.
ART BECOMES A PRIORITY
Rie became pregnant while on the island and gave birth to her twins in 1955. The couple returned to camp with the babies the next year but quickly decided mother and children were best in town. While Juan Sr. continued prospecting, Rie continued working for the Daily Alaska Empire as a cartoonist and editor, a job she’d accepted on her first day in Juneau. She also began to gain a reputation as a mural painter and was actively working on smaller paintings based on her sketches.
Following Felipe’s death and Rie and Juan Sr.’s divorce, Rie and Juan Jr. began traveling around Alaska to sell Rie’s art. In 1964, they embarked on a Clothespin Art Tour of 14 towns and villages in Alaska, selling her original works to passersby.
“I have lots of good memories of the clothespin art show,” Juan Jr. said. “We’d go to a small village and string up a clothesline and she’d hang her paintings right on the clothesline. Those paintings would go for 30 or 35 dollars. (Years later), every now and then someone would come up to my mom and say, ‘Rie, I got one of your paintings for $35 way back when, what do you think it’s worth now?!’ And my mom would say, ‘Well, I’ll give you $36 for it right now!’”
She also sold her early work in Juneau, often through friends’ businesses, Judy said.
“When I first came here (in 1963), before I ever met her, I remember that she was selling her originals from the window of Nina’s Originals (a local seamstress) on Seward Street,” Judy recalled, adding that she was already building a following at that point. “Rie was just one of those people that was so pervasive in the community you couldn’t miss her.”
In 1967, Rie was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to illustrate a booklet about the annual reindeer roundup on Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea – an experience Juan Jr. remembers vividly, in part because he was allowed to hang out with the men who were managing the reindeer’s corrals while his mom was working. At one point, he recalled, the men let him stand in the pen as hundreds of reindeer rushed in, making a clear path around him.
When they weren’t traveling, Rie and Juan Jr. lived in several different places around Juneau before settling on Starr Hill in 1968, when Juan Jr. was in middle school. Rie took a job as curator at the Alaska State Museum that same year, and was able to pay off her mortgage in a very short time. With no mortgage to worry about, Rie left the museum in 1972 to become an artist full time.
“That woman was frugal, always,” Judy said. “She had two luxuries. One was travel and one was property.”
Rie had cabins in several Southeast communities, including Tenakee, a place that remained dear to her heart the rest of her life.
“She loved going out there, and in fact, that’s where her ashes are buried,” Juan Jr. said.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Rie continued to explore every corner of Alaska. Juan Jr. said she rarely declined an invitation to visit with her sketch book.
“What people would do is say, ‘Hey Rie, we’re harvesting fish’ or ‘We’ve got a fish camp up in Dry Bay, if you want to come up and sketch sometime.’ And boom, she was there. She just loved those kinds of invitations, and she took advantage of almost every single one.”
It made no difference if there was nowhere for her to sleep once she got there.
“She would just go anyplace and sleep on the floor, whatever the accommodation were, she could do it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” Judy recalled.
In the early 70s, her style underwent a shift, Juan Jr. said, due in part to a change of medium.
“She used to paint in oil but found it so intimidating -- she felt like every piece had to be a masterpiece,” he said. “And then a friend showed her watercolors and it totally opened up her style.”
Rie had several major exhibits around that time, including a watercolor exhibition shown at the Alaska State Museum and the Anchorage Museum in 1971, and another one at the Charles and Emma Frye Museum in Seattle in 1973, the first of many shows at the Frye. In 1976 she had another watercolor show at the state museum, and in 1982 opened an exhibit of her tapestries. Rie also created seriographs (silk screen prints), soapstone prints, linocuts, pen-and-ink drawings and stained glass.
By the mid-80s, her original work was getting harder to come by.
“She would have an art show – they would all be originals – and people would wait in line outside the art shop and when it opened they would rush in, put their hand on something and stand there,” Jay recalled.
In the early 1990s Rie was featured on NBC’s Evening Magazine, and on ABC’s Good Morning America. Her work began appearing on magazine covers around the country, as well as on phone books and the Eddie Bauer Christmas catalog.
Despite all the attention, Rie remained exactly the same, Judy said.
“It didn’t affect her. That was the great thing about her,” she said.
Leaving a legacy
In 1985, Juan Jr., who had been living in Oregon, moved back to town to help run the gallery so his mom could focus on her art.
“I liked to get her artwork out there, she liked to paint,” Juan Jr. said. “Once in a while I’d come up with what I thought was a great idea for a painting and once in a while she’d try it. And it would always come out stiff. It wasn’t her. I gave that up long ago.”
In 1992, Juan Jr. opened the Rie Muñoz Gallery on Jorden Avenue in the Mendenhall Valley. His office on the second floor of the gallery now showcases many of his mother’s original works. Among his favorites are a handful of self-portraits that hang in the stairway up to his office: “Self Portrait, 4th St. Stairs,” “Night on the Balcony,” and “Artist Sketching, Aniak.”
“I love that one,” Juan Jr. said of “Artist Sketching.” “She’s sketching this church and the mosquitoes are out -- she drew the mosquitoes about a foot and a half larger, just these huge monster mosquitoes.” He chuckled.
One of Rie’s two grandchildren, Mercedes, who is also an artist, said she also loves “Night on the Balcony,” which for her is linked to personal memories. The painting shows Rie asleep on her deck on Starr Hill, her dog curled up at her feet. Mercedes, who recently graduated from art school, now lives in the house herself. She said her interest in becoming an artist, and her confidence in her ability to be successful, were directly inspired by her grandmother, with whom she was very close. She’d been making art with her since she could hold a paintbrush, she said.
“She’d have an idea that she would want to do with me but then she would completely follow through. It wasn’t just giving me a piece of paper. She was there with me through the whole process and really encouraged me to put my work out there.”
On one occasion, when Mercedes was about 8, Rie helped her collect driftwood from the beach, let it dry out, and then gave it to her to paint on. When it was finished they prepared it for hanging, and took it to the Haines Fair to enter it in their art show. Mercedes’ piece took a blue ribbon.
Mercedes said her grandmother always emphasized the importance of following her own compass in deciding what to create.
“I asked her at one point, ‘Why do you think your work is so successful?’ And she said, ‘Well I just do what makes me happy. I never was influenced by what people told me I should paint.’ And I’ve tried to take a page out of that book,” Mercedes said.
One of the last places Rie went before she died was to Mercedes’ first-ever First Friday show, hosted by Annie Kaills. Mercedes, who is currently focused on ceramics, sold nearly every piece during the opening, an experience she was happy to share with her grandmother.
Since Rie’s death, Mercedes said it’s been comforting to hear from community members and others how much her grandmother touched their lives.
“It’s not just our family that’s grieving. I think people all around the state are grieving,” Mercedes said. “People feel a really strong connection to her and she’s kind of a part of Alaska’s identity, which is really special. I feel blessed that I got to have such an amazing woman as an influence on me, as a grandmother and as a best friend. I’m very grateful.”
Mercedes’ father Juan Jr. said that up until the very last day, Rie lived the life she wanted to live.
“I was laughing with her that day,” Juan Jr. said. “It really was a beautiful life. And a very elegant exit. None of us are happy about it, but she is. She’s thrilled.”
A celebration of life for Rie Muñoz is scheduled for Thursday, April 23 from 3-5 p.m. at Centennial Hall.