Artist Rie Muñoz reflects on her 90th birthday

JUNEAU: When she first saw the city in 1950, it was love at first sight.

August 20, 2011 

Rie Munoz

BOB HALLINEN / DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE 2007

Rie Muñoz first came to Alaska in 1950, as a tourist on board the steamship Princess Louise. She was on a round-trip sailing from Seattle to Skagway, until she saw the docks and the mountains and, yes, the sun shining down on Juneau.

"There was still snow on the mountains," Muñoz said. "And the water was sparkling. I had only seen Alaska magazine in the '40s and it was not nearly as beautiful as that day."

Muñoz stepped off the vessel and told herself that if she found a job and a place to live, she was staying.

She walked along a block or two before poking her head into the Daily Alaska Empire newspaper, where she was hired on the spot. Next she walked along Seventh Street, and saw a woman hanging laundry out to dry. She asked the woman if she knew of anyone with a place to rent and the woman said, "I have a place for you."

Muñoz moved in with the Finnish woman and her husband, a janitor at the federal building, paying them $5 a week.

When the steamship returned to Juneau two days later, Muñoz went on board and retrieved all her belongings that had completed the sailing without her. Then she called her parents and said she was staying in Alaska.

"It is amazing how many people I have talked to that did the same thing," Muñoz said. "Or they got a summer job and stayed on. I was so inspired when I saw Juneau that I wanted to paint everything."

In Juneau, her first painting was of the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on Fifth Street downtown. She worked in oils in the beginning before perfecting her craft in watercolors. Instead of disposing of a work that was not up to par, Muñoz would turn it over and paint on the good side.

"A number of my paintings have other no-good paintings on the other side," Muñoz laughed. "A lot of people probably have some of my disasters hanging on their walls."

At the Daily Alaska Empire, which became the Juneau Empire in 1964, Muñoz was the cartoonist and editor of the women's page.

"I was writing about people's parties and trips," Muñoz said. "It was always fascinating."

Her main job was to find advertising, so she met everyone in town on her rounds and wrote about them later.

She soon met Juan Muñoz, a geologist, and they married. Looking to save a grubstake to start some prospecting, the two took teaching positions with Alaska Native schools in the Bush.

While living on King Island in 1951, a 13-hour umiak (open skin boat) ride from Nome, Muñoz brought some of her favorite works and ideas to fruition.

"For the longest time none of the Eskimos spoke English," Muñoz said. "I never lost an argument there. They were such wonderful people, it was a beautiful time."

Muñoz bought her first house in Juneau on Starr Hill for $7,000 and still rents it out. She worked as a Juneau museum curator from 1968-72 before becoming an artist full time and traveling the state sketching nearly every community imaginable.

"The only places in Alaska I haven't been to are Anaktuvuk Pass and Kake," Muñoz said. Can you believe it? I have never been right over to Kake."

Her traveling bug was ingrained at an early age. Muñoz was born in Van Nuys, Calif., in 1921 but spent most of her young life in Holland. Her parents were Holland-Dutch. Her father was a partner in a business magazine in Holland and wrote stories about business in America, so he would travel with the family. As a 4-year-old, Muñoz would sit on the floor amidst a pile of papers and magazines and draw with crayons.

In 1939, when Germany became a threat and Holland was on the brink of occupation, Muñoz, then 18, was sent to the U.S. with a younger brother to live with friends in Plainview, N.J. An older brother was told not to return to Holland.

U.S. officials said the only people who could come to the states were parents with minor children living there. Muñoz' parents applied for visas and just days before they were to leave on a ship, Hitler attacked Holland. Her parents would not arrive in the U.S. until 1947. Muñoz finished one high school year and joined her older brother in Hollywood, Calif. Without resources from her parents, she began decorating windows in a North Hollywood dime store.

"That is why my brothers and I didn't go to college," Muñoz said. "We had to work for a living."

Muñoz said she doesn't have a sketch left from those years, and that she never considered herself an artist. But every lunch hour she would go to the Los Angeles Public Library and pick up Alaska magazine.

"I was totally intrigued," Muñoz said. "I moved to Seattle for a while and starting painting again. And that was when I planned that first trip to Alaska."

Muñoz' two favorite pieces of her own works are "The Embrace," in which an Eskimo mother hugs her little daughter, and "Peaceable Alaska," where a group of animals are gathered around a boy in a wooded setting.

In her current home, works displayed include her depictions of the church in Aniak, a flock of guillemots in flight, high tea in the Empress Hotel in Canada, a laundry machine out in the woods of Tenakee and her last painting -- of a boat in Kotzebue taken out of the water in winter and sitting in the snow.

She also has a piece by granddaughter Mercedes, who is the daughter of Muñoz' son Juan and his wife, state Rep. Cathy Muñoz.

"(Mercedes) is a great artist, but I could be biased," Muñoz said.

Muñoz also has 140 sketchbooks and still sketches a little, but is currently writing her memoir.

"I still sketch for my own benefit," Muñoz said. "I may include sketches in my memoir."

One sketch that she thinks back on still makes her laugh. She was watching a woman in an airport who was sneaking a quick drink of whiskey from a bottle.

"She was peeking around," Muñoz said. "Making sure no one saw her, but I saw her. It still gives me a big chuckle."

The last sketch Muñoz did was called Lena Loop Road. It shows the view looking out from a cabin her son owns, across the water towards houses on the other side.

Last weekend in Tenakee, Muñoz was helping celebrate grandson Matthew's 5th birthday. She described a scene that she might have painted if it were a decade sooner -- a scene of family, friends and wildlife in celebration.

"We were bobbing for apples," Muñoz said. "We had a race. It was a great day in Tenakee."

On the state ferry returning from that party, a little girl asked Muñoz what painting she would do if her eyes were not bad, if her hands didn't shake, and if she, well, wasn't 90 years old.

"You know that place along Old Glacier Highway where all the animals are cared for," Muñoz described to the little girl. "Where the people sometimes walk four or five or nine dogs at one time? I would paint them. I have always wanted to do that, I always wanted to go out there and sketch them or take their photo and paint that. I think that is amazing."

That is what Muñoz has captured in her roughly 2,000 paintings. A tiny slice of life that becomes a succulent visual feast.

"I have the old people's eye disease now," Muñoz said matter-of-factly. "I can't paint. My straight lines become wobbly. I have been told I should start doing abstracts."

On Wednesday, Muñoz turned 90 years old. She opened the doors of her gallery for a gathering with her friends and public.

"I am not totally thrilled to be 90 years old," Muñoz said. "So bring your conversation, come and visit and talk with me a while.

"And no gifts, please. Juneau has already been one of the biggest gifts of my life."

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