Ark in Alaska — “‘Ark in Alaska’ was an idea I had for a painting for three to four years. First, I worked on the design mentally, then on paper before I figured out how to do it. I was finally able to achieve the results I sought in this fun watercolor, showing Noah’s ark with only Alaskan animals and a mermaid.” —Rie Muñoz

It’s hard to walk into an Alaskan home without encountering a Rie Muñoz painting. A self-taught artist with an easy laugh, this Dutch-American found her way into the heart of the 49th state.

whales in the inlet
Whales in the Inlet — While spending a summer at her cabin in Tenakee Springs, Muñoz was delighted to find humpback whales bubblenet feeding. This group feeding behavior went on month after month, right in front of the town. Residents could see and hear the whales feeding at all hours of the day and night.

Born in 1921 to parents who emigrated from Holland to California, Rie (short for Marie) Muñoz grew up traveling between Europe and the states. During WWII, she served in the Women’s Army Corps in Germany before returning to the United States for good. In 1950, Muñoz headed north by steamship. As she sailed into Juneau, she recalled, “what a gorgeous town, setting, mountains, sparkling ocean. Oh, if only I could live here… I should try!” In a few short hours, she landed a job, found a room to rent, and jumped ship.

bear legend
Bear Legend — According to an Athabascan legend, two women went up the mountain every day to snare squir- rels. One woman captured squirrels but the other always stopped at a clearing and ate berries all day long. Her friend warned her that if she continued filling up on berries, she would turn into a bear. One evening, laden with her day’s catch, the hard-working woman walked into the clearing, and she saw her friend on all fours eating berries. As she approached, her partner turned into a black bear.

Married the following year, Muñoz and her husband took teaching posts on King Island in the Bering Sea. Muñoz sketched her neighbors, fascinated by the Alaska Native way of life, stories, and traditions. She continued to sketch and paint as she prospected around Southeast, had twins, and later worked as curator of exhibits at the Alaska State Museum. In 1972, she quit her job and devoted herself entirely to art.

Halibut $1 — Commercial longliners often sell their products from the boat harbor. This painting was done in 1985, and halibut for $1 a pound was a good deal, even back then.

Muñoz painted mostly in watercolors. Her style is expressionistic, relying on strong colors and distortion to express emotion. She painted real people doing real things, emphasizing activities as mundane as hanging socks to dry, but giving them whimsical, vibrant life. The grand landscapes of Alaska were a backdrop to what mattered to her—relationships, community, traditions, and the joyful bounty to be reaped from land, sea, and friendship.

polar bear and fox
Polar Bear and Fox — According to an Indigenous legend, at first the world was dark. There was no daylight. One day, Fox said to Polar Bear, “Let there be light so I can see the animals I hunt.” “No,” said Polar Bear, “I can sniff my prey. I like the dark.” Finally it was agreed that there should be half daylight and half dark, and that is how it remains today.
the embrace
The Embrace — This was one of Muñoz’s favorite paintings, showing an Inupiaq mother holding her child.

Though Muñoz received many prestigious awards and an honorary doctorate degree, she remained as grounded and approachable as ever. She published over 500 of her 1,500 paintings with scenes from practically all corners of the state. At the peak of her career, she was featured in over 400 galleries across the United States and Canada. Muñoz passed away in 2015 at the age of 93, one of Alaska’s most recognized and beloved artists.


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