A Truly Montana Artist

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – After growing up on a farm in Montana’s plains, James Bakke spent three decades working on the railroad straight out of high school. Given this resume, Bakke may seem an unlikely disciple of Vincent van Gogh, the great Dutch post-Impressionistic painter.

But a new book on Bakke’s artwork demonstrates a pervading van Gogh influence, both in his landscapes and in the occasionally surreal skies that hover above those landscapes. Bakke refers to van Gogh as “Vinnie,” like a longtime buddy.

Perhaps more unlikely than Bakke’s post-Impressionistic leanings is the fact that there is even a book published about him, considering his low profile in the art world. Whitefish resident Donna Hopkins can be thanked for that.

Over the past year, Hopkins has conducted interviews with Bakke, who also lives in Whitefish, and compiled samplings of his paintings for “James R. Bakke Montana Artist: From the Prairie to Whitefish to Glacier National Park,” published by Kalispell’s Scott Company Publishing.

Hopkins has known Bakke for years and admired his work, even if few others know about him. Now that Bakke is 80, Hopkins believes it’s time to introduce his art to a larger audience.

“When I started living here full-time, I was overwhelmed by the diversity and depth and breadth of his works,” Hopkins said last week. “He just turned 80 and very few people know about him. His work is really stunning.”

Hopkins has book signings scheduled June 23 at Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, June 24 at the Bigfork Museum of Art and History and July 7 at Kalispell’s Hockaday Museum of Art.

The book is divided into four sections, showing seven decades’ worth of works, from the family farm in Gildford where he was born and raised as the youngest of nine children, on to his Whitefish railroading and Glacier National Park exploration days, with a closing section dedicated to portraits. Bakke works in oil, crayon, pastel and other media, though arthritis and health problems have limited him in his advanced age, Hopkins said.

Donna Hopkins thumbs through the pages of a book she has written on the life works of James R. Bakke spanning seven decades.

In a section at the end of the book, Bakke says he’s “older, more crippled, but not poorer.” He finds enduring richness in art.

“Though I can no longer paint, I am able to look through these prints and remember the dazzling view in every direction in Glacier, but also those on the prairie with a more subtle color and vibrant memories,” Bakke said.

Hopkins describes Bakke as “a little eccentric” and “reclusive,” which means that it took a bit of convincing to get him to agree to the book. But Hopkins has known him for years, dating back to her grandmother’s friendship with Bakke’s mother, which made her a much better candidate to take on the project than a stranger.

“He said, ‘I can’t pay for it,’ and I said, ‘I know, I just need you to come along with me,’” Hopkins said, adding that she dipped into her savings to publish the book.

Bakke never married nor does he have kids, Hopkins said. He lived with his mother until her death and now lives alone in Whitefish with his cats in the same place his family moved into in 1947. His art, however, reflects a life fully lived, rather than spent in hiding. Decades of avid hiking in Glacier Park and working on the railroad provided ample inspiration.

Bakke takes photographs everywhere he goes and uses them for reference in his paintings. Yet most of his paintings avoid photo-real aspirations, instead displaying Bakke’s knack for color schemes and appreciation of post-Impressionistic brushstrokes. Red is his favorite color, Hopkins notes.

The book provides several examples of Bakke’s crayon pieces, which have startlingly complex compositions and coloring. Hopkins said Bakke grew up poor on the farm and learned to make do with what he had, which was often crayons. Later, when he was able to buy oil and other media, he continued dabbling in crayons.

James R. Bakke, Montana Artist, by Donna Shane Hopkins

No matter the medium, Bakke proves adept, if not loyal to his pal “Vinnie.”

“And I believe my old friend, Vinnie,” Bakke concludes in the book, “or his brother Theo, would say, ‘The past was glorious but the present lives and breathes – the colors more vibrant and the memories will dazzle forever.’ Thank you, Vincent.”

For more information on “James R. Bakke Montana Artist” and Hopkins’ book signings, visit www.jamesbakke.com or contact Hopkins at [email protected].