The Artist Ranger

National parks employee Tim Rains displays his illustrations at Montana Coffee Traders in Kalispell during December

By Molly Priddy
Illustrations from Tim Rains. Courtesy of Tim Rains.

When Tim Rains finally sat down in his Denali, Alaska home to get to work honing his passion for illustration, all that emerged from the tip of his ink pen was a circle.

As an employee at Denali National Park, Rains had to find a way to pass the time, but also wanted to better himself. Illustrating was always a passion, he figured. So he drew another circle. Then a spiral. Then a circle again.

“I was kind of waiting for the light to come down and the angels to start singing. They didn’t,” Rains said in an interview last week, quick to laugh at his slightly hubristic beginnings. “But it felt cathartic to draw that circle. So I drew another. And more spirals.”

Eventually, his illustrations evolved to include the overwhelming and incredible Alaskan outdoors. But Rains knew those circles and spirals would follow him.

Several years and a couple moves later, Rains, who worked as the communications specialist at Glacier National Park last summer, is about to show his first solo exhibit, his circles and spirals having become lovable, whimsical, colorful characters.

Rains’ work will be on display at Montana Coffee Traders in Kalispell this December, a step the artist says is huge for his growth and confidence in his work.

It’s just kind of been like that since Rains moved here. He’d been living in Portland, Oregon, focusing on his talents as a composer, when he felt compelled to move to Montana.

“I thought it would be a better place to focus on artwork and music,” Rains said.

A longtime employee of national parks, Rains said his passion for the outdoors is mirrored in his desire to create and express himself. Each time he’s worked in a national park, Rains said he’s treated it like an artist-in-residence position as well, learning from his surroundings and taking the most inspiration to the paper.

Ironically, Rains said that while working for and in Glacier National Park, the only characters and scenes he felt compelled to capture were the goats and a traffic jam caused by an explosion of wildflowers in a field in Many Glacier. The landscape hasn’t played into his work much, and the bears remind him too much of Alaska.

Instead, while living here, he turned those circles into creatures and people. His partner Jon loves owls, so Rains tried that first, and found a natural rhythm with the circles he’d drawn before. Soon, hearts became an important aspect of the illustrations, which he draws with ink then fills in the color on the computer.

“I never intended to be an illustrator,” he said. “But I found through abstraction and doing my own thing and owning it, people start to find something that speaks to them.”

His creations are whimsical and inviting, and have found homes in local businesses. While working at PlantLand in Evergreen, for example, Rains drew a piece called “From My Gnome to Yours,” featuring a garden gnome offering a potted plant. The gnomes eyes are spirals, his hat and belt are decorated hearts, and the plant is a small, growing heart as well.

Rains hopes his characters become part of a larger mythos in which the spiral, circle, and heart are representative throughout. Spirals denote being grounded, he said, and the hearts are about happiness and love.

Titling his creations is also part of Rains’ process, because the titles often say more about the intent behind them. The piece “Scream Heard Round the World” is a commentary on Election Day, he said, while another piece has the title “The Goat Who Climbed High Enough to Eat the Stars.” The exclusive piece for Montana Coffee Traders, featuring a Three-Wise-Men-ish figure bestowing coffee, is titled, “Eureka! Or The Day I Saved Christmas.”

“They’re quirky because sometimes they’re what I want to say,” Rains said.

Along with the Montana Coffee Traders show, Rains said he’s working on commissions, and hopes his designs catch the eyes of those thinking about getting a tattoo. Eventually, he wants to put all his characters into an ensemble creation and reach a Disney-sized audience. Already, his Etsy store is gaining traction, he said, and his pieces at Sassafras in Kalispell are selling.

But while he strives for greater heights, Rains said he’s found purpose in his work again, and plans to keep riding the wave of creative success he’s found in Montana. Whether people are drawn to his work because of the circular elements or their own reasons, Rains is happy his work is connecting.

“Whatever you see, I just want people to have fun,” Rains said.

For more information on Tim Rains, visit or

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