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Celebrated Alaska artist Rie Munoz dies in Juneau at 93

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published April 7, 2015

Rie Munoz, whose popular paintings expressed the joy and wonder of life and Alaska, died of a stroke Monday in Juneau. She was 93.

Munoz's bright watercolors centered on everyday life -- berry picking, hanging laundry, fishing -- with a sense of celebration. She was particularly known for her depictions of people in Alaska Native villages and Southeast. Her work got wide distribution through prints, tourist items and book illustrations.

She rendered people in a simple style: little or no shading, round heads, off-sized limbs, dots for eyes. Animals were similarly stylized. People and animals sometimes floated above the ground, an idea she once said was inspired by Russian-French modernist Marc Chagall. The public ate it up.

Anchorage artist and art dealer Jean Shadrach recalled the first time she saw Munoz's paintings on display at the Anchorage Museum. "Everybody was looking at her paintings and smiling. Her art makes you feel good to look at it. There's something about her sense of humor that just comes through."

Munoz, nee Marie Mounier, was born to Dutch parents in Van Nuys, California, on Aug. 17, 1921. Her father was a travel writer who often visited America with his family. Rie spent most of her girlhood in Holland, but as World War II loomed, she and a brother were sent to stay with friends in the U.S. The parents intended to follow, but Germany invaded Holland before they could leave. She would not see them for another seven years.

Left largely on her own, she took a job dressing windows at a department store. As the war ended, she joined the Women's Army Corps and became a reporter for the Pass-Times, a military biweekly, and took courses in stage and costume design. She once quipped that those courses were her only formal art training, but Shadrach said she learned most of what she knew from the "Famous Artists" correspondence courses advertised in magazines.

After her service, she returned to department store work in California. In 1950, she decided to take a trip. She drew a circle on a map to encompass the area she could afford to visit. Southeast Alaska looked like the most interesting destination and she booked passage on the steamer Louise.

On June 1, 1950, a sparkling sunny day, the ship pulled into Juneau. She disembarked and pledged that if she could find a job before it returned from Skagway, she'd stay. She immediately found work as a reporter with the Alaska Sunday Press. When the Louise came back through a few days later, she retrieved her luggage and wired her employer to say she wouldn't be back at work.

In Juneau she met and married geologist Juan Munoz. Handsome, talented, ambitious, he seemed like a modern-day Jack London. He dreamed of striking it rich like the sourdoughs of old. But to work a claim took money. The couple signed up as teachers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and were sent to King Island, off the westernmost tip of Alaska.

At that time, King Islanders spent summers working in Nome and returned as a group in the fall. The Munozes caught the 13-hour ride in an open skin boat and arrived at the now-abandoned village site, where they were welcomed by village dogs that had been left to run loose over the winter. One dog came straight for Rie. "Whose is this?" she asked. "That's the teacher's dog," came the answer.

Munoz regularly recalled her year on King Island as "a beautiful time."

The couple left the island the following summer and pursued mining on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast. Shadrach recalled that they were at a remote camp when Munoz was expecting twins. The mother-to-be developed back problems and had to walk nine hours to get to a phone to confer with a doctor. "And all the doctor said was she should get some rest," Shadrach said. "She had to walk all the way back."

Munoz gave birth to two sons, Felipe, who died from kidney cancer as a child, and Juan Jr. In 1963, she divorced Juan Sr. and bought a home in Juneau high on Starr Hill, 184 steps up from street level. It would remain her home until her final years, when she moved to a condominium.

"The little house was so charming," Shadrach recalled. "There was a little kitchen area and a bay window with blueberries growing in it. Upstairs were two bedrooms; one was a studio. But she never had a bed. She'd sleep in the window looking out over Juneau. Or in the summer she'd take a blanket out on the deck."

Munoz supported herself as the political cartoonist and women's writer for the Juneau Empire and as a curator for the Alaska State Museum. She was eventually able to live off the proceeds of her prints, paintings as lithographs, especially after her surviving son Juan picked up the business management end of things, leaving her free to paint and travel.

"She loved to paint with other artists," Shadrach said. "We traveled together many times, sketching and painting. One year we followed the Iditarod. Another time we went to England."

In addition to her Juneau house, she had a small cabin in Tenakee, the site of many of her best-known paintings.

She received an honorary doctorate in humanities from the University of Alaska in 1999. By that time, she estimated, she'd done 2,000 paintings and had at least 140 sketchbooks. But on her 90th birthday, vision problems caused her to slow down.

"I have the old people's eye disease now," she said. "I can't paint. My straight lines become wobbly."

Artistic success did not mean a smooth path. Her style was adapted by other artists in ways that some considered copycatting. Munoz herself never publicly commented but was said to be unhappy about it.

She produced books herself and illustrated others, notably Jean Roger's "King Island Christmas," later turned into a musical. This, too, became something of a sore point over how important her contribution was to the success of the books.

Very important, in the opinion of Shadrach. "No one would have read those books without Rie's illustrations," she said.

Rie Munoz was preceded in death by her parents, brother Frederik ("Fritz"), son Felipe and ex-husband, Juan Sr., who died in Ketchikan in 2005. She is survived by her son and daughter-in-law, Juan Jr. and state representative Cathy Munoz of Juneau, brother Pierre "Piet" Mounier of California, two grandchildren, two nephews and a niece.

A celebration of life will take place at 3 p.m. April 23 in Centennial Hall in Juneau.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4332.

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