Artist spends summer with grizzlies

The North American grizzly bear is typically eight feet long and about 850 pounds with long, sharp claws. Kevin Muente, an art professor at Northern Kentucky University, stands 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighs 175 pounds and usually carries a paintbrush. The two made a connection this past summer. For ten days they shared the same habitat in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Every year the park sponsors an Artist in Residency Program, which grants three artists the opportunity to live in the park and create a body of work during their summer stay. Primarily a landscape painter, Muente jumped at the opportunity to paint the vast wilderness of a national park that is comparable in size to the state of Massachusetts. Despite having only a week and a half to work, Muente’s days seemed long because of the nature of the Alaskan summer. With the sun still out at 11 p.m., there was always plenty of light for the artist’s plein-air paintings. However, the sheer size of the park provided a problem for Muente. “I wanted to explore as much of the park as possible to get some good sketches,” Muente said. “But every time I turned around I saw a new setting I thought I wanted to capture. I almost couldn’t decide what to paint.” Muente was inspired more by the wildlife than the soaring mountains and the rolling hills of the tundra. “I saw a pack of wolves hunt down and devour a caribou,” Muente said. “That sight reminded me that there are still places left where man has not yet interfered with life.” Muente did not see many humans during his trip, but there were certainly plenty of grizzly bears around. “Having bears 50 yards away from you while you’re trying to paint can be very exciting … and very scary,” he said. It was important to make small paintings of his environment while Muente was there, because he believes that photos are not as good a resource as the real thing. Despite the often chilly or rainy weather and the long days of hiking, Muente executed several sketch paintings in addition to taking hundreds of reference photos. He plans to take all these materials back to his studio where he will complete large-scale versions of his sketches. As for the threat of bear attacks, don’t worry: Muente brought along plenty of protection-his wife Tammi Muente accompanied him for the entire trip.