Artist Profile Story by Sarah Gonzales
She goes by V Rae, the initial of her first name and then her middle name. There's something succinct but also mysterious about her moniker, as if she's pared it down to just the essential elements – and that may very well be the case. V's large-scale but detailed, intent yet joyful renderings of Alaska's flora and fauna focus on the essence of the object – whether bear, flower or dog – then present it, simultaneously stark and vibrant, against a white background. "I paint expressions," she says, and truly, one could imagine mirth in her black bear's eyes or contentment on her moose's face.
"I have an affinity for animals," she explains, pointing to various prints of foxes, birds and bears that have frequented her yard. "I can pick them up or get really close and it's been that way since I was young growing up in the wilds of western Montana." Back then, as a child, V painted with her "fun box of watercolors" and then went on to study art at Boise State University. It wasn't until later in her life, though, that she became a working artist. To look at her subjects now – bears, moose, otters, sea lions, whales, shore birds – it's no surprise that a move to Alaska 20 years ago set her on the path to becoming the full-time artist she is today.
Jean Shadrach and Andy Dunham, two other distinguished Alaska artists, helped V discover her true calling. Before meeting these mentors, V says that she painted in a more "realistic" style on smaller canvas, but it was Shadrach who encouraged her towards her current "big and free and colorful" style. "Jean says, 'You were meant to paint big!' She knows things about people, she's intuitive and it changed the course of my life," recalls V. She went home and painted big for the first time, creating what she now calls the "famous moose," a soft lavender, green and blue-hued face of a female moose that still frequents her backyard.
V says that those who buy her art want "something edgy, something different, something colorful" and she is happy to oblige these collectors. "My goal is to foster a connection between people and the things around us," she explains. To facilitate this connection, her paintings highlight colors where others may not see colors – say, the green on a black bear or the purple on a brown sea lion. "I paint the colors reflected off them," she says, noting that green or purple are definitely there and made more obvious when captured in watercolors.
Her paintings are indeed colorful – whether rendered in a subtler, gentle palette like in the famous moose painting, or in whorl upon whorl of vibrant blues, greens, reds, oranges and purples as seen in a painting of a bear peeking around a birch tree. V says the multi-hues bring out the animal's personality.
Where does she find these subjects? They come to her vast backyard, like the bears wandering up from Rabbit Creek, which flows through her property, or she meets them in Prince William Sound. She calls the Sound a "magical place" and she often explores it on the boat she and her husband run out of Whittier.
Originally it was real estate that brought V north, and while she makes a living with her art now, her enduring property-savvy is evidenced by her home that overlooks Potter Marsh and out to Turnagain Arm. The remodel V and her husband completed together is bright, airy and incorporates unique materials like giant North Slope drill bits repurposed as load-bearing beams. V's work space and living space are effortlessly intermingled: she paints on an L-shaped work station near a piano, a huge peace lily and a set of sofas. A hallway gallery leads off the sitting area and circles back around to an open kitchen. In the middle of it all is a square, all-glass atrium with a peaked glass ceiling, perfect for growing tropical plants and for "painting in the winter," says V. Regularly, she is commissioned to paint pet portraits – sometimes with live models and sometimes not – so it was important that her studio space also be friendly to animals and to their people, too. One gets the impression from this home that here art and life, so seamlessly blended, are considered one and the same.