Painter chosen to celebrate Missouri River Breaks area


Paul Tunkis created this watercolor, “Killdeer Upstream Decision Point” earlier this year near Fort Benton. At Decision Point, Lewis and Clark had to determine whether the Missouri River or the Marias River was the main channel of the stream they were following. They made the right decision.

When you think of an “artist-in-residence,” you probably picture an artist spending a certain amount of time at a museum, school or some other institution.

For Livingston watercolorist Paul Tunkis, an upcoming artist-in-residence program will mean spending a little more than two weeks in a canoe on the Missouri River.

Tunkis has been selected as the Bureau of Land Management’s first artist-in-residence for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument describe it as the place “where the Wild and Scenic Missouri River flows through nearly half-a-million acres of central Montana prairies and badlands.”

The BLM is funding the program with the assistance of the Friends group, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the monument.

Guidelines for the program called for having the artist spend at least a week on the Missouri River and then produce at least one work of art that the Friends and the BLM could use in perpetuity.


Paul Tunkis

Tunkis, though, plans to be on the river from Sept. 13 to Sept. 29, and he plans to produce 15 to 20 watercolors. He is so eager to begin that he already went to Decision Point, near Fort Benton, earlier this month and produced three paintings just from that short visit.

“He’s definitely going above and beyond what we expected of an artist,” said Sara Meloy, restoration coordinator for the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument.

Tunkis said his hearing about the artist-in-residence programs in the first place was “kind of one of those really odd deals.” He does have a Facebook page for his Livingston Studio, E Street Gallery, but his partner, Lori Richards, does all the posting, he said.

He doesn’t like to spend much time on Facebook, but last spring he was on it and saw that somebody had reposted an announcement about the residency program in the Missouri Breaks.

“I clicked on it and looked at it and I thought, well, gee, that’s kind of neat. That’s a great area up there.”

Tunkis said he may have had an edge in the selection process because he was not only an experienced landscape painter, but also an experienced outdoorsman. He spent 13 years as a fulltime fishing guide, based in Bozeman, and he figures he was on the water for 200 days a year during that period.

He also worked as an outfitter for a hunting guide in the Colorado Rockies and he continues to hunt on the plains of Montana and in Africa. In short, he said, spending time in a canoe on the Missouri would not be, as it might for some other artists, “like a trip to the moon.”

“I can go out there for two weeks by myself,” he said. “I’d feel safer there than going to Seattle.”

Meloy said Tunkis’ outdoor experience did play a part in his selection, but the selection team also thought it was important to support a Montana artist, and his body of work suggested he was the right artist for the job.

“We just loved his work so much and felt it really reflected the area,” she said.

Tunkis grew up on a ranch in Northern California and studied art and architecture at the University of Oregon. His real training as an artist, he said, came in the 1970s, when he studied under Thomas Leighton and Marjorie Lester in San Francisco.

Leighton was an expatriate Englishman, Tunkis said, a member of the Royal Academy of Arts and a rigorous teacher who insisted that his students master drawing before learning to paint. He also learned much from Lester, Leighton’s wife, who created many illustrations for National Geographic.


“Decision Point—pre-dawn,” painted by Tunkis earlier this month.

After his foray into the guiding business, Tunkis said his interest in art was revived in 2011, and since then he has been painting Montana landscapes and wildlife. He is looking forward to his work in the Breaks, which he called “a phenomenal place.”

He’ll be canoeing the 150-mile stretch between Fort Benton and Kipp Recreation Area. The best-known stretch of the Upper Missouri is the White Cliffs segment between Coal Banks Landing and Judith Landing.

Tunkis said that stretch of river is akin is to the geysers in Yellowstone National Park—something everybody wants to see and everybody can appreciate. But there is great beauty everywhere in the Breaks region, he said.

“The Eastern Montana prairies are the essence of the Big Sky,” he said. “That’s where you see it.”

He said the nights are spectacular, when the sky is crowded with stars, followed by the sublime delights of dawn on the prairies.

“You can’t paint that,” he said. “It’s an experience. You have to be there. You have to smell it. You have to feel it.”

In addition to landscapes, Tunkis is looking forward to painting some of the wildlife that abounds in the Breaks, including elk, mule deer and whitetails. He said he also wants to paint some of the “phenomenal old homesteads” scattered throughout the area, reminders of the “hardscrabble people” who worked so hard to scratch a living out of that harsh country.

He said he will only be sketching during his canoe trip, and taking some photographs, and then will create his watercolors when he gets back to his studio.

He is scheduled to present his work to the BLM and the Friends group at the BLM’s Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center in Fort Benton in November, after which one of his paintings will be selected for permanent display.

And though it’s not part of the residency program, Tunkis said, he’d like to stage a show of the rest of his Missouri Breaks paintings sometime before Christmas, donating one-third of the proceeds to the Friends to support their restoration work on the Missouri.

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