Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument from an Artist’s Perspective.
by Paul Tunkis
In the fall of 2015 I was selected to be Artist-in-Residence for the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This area encompasses the Missouri River downstream from Coal Banks Landing – east of Fort Benton, to the border of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a distance of approximately 97.5 miles on the river. The final take out point on the river is the James Kipp Recreation area within the C.M. Russell Refuge making the total trip about 107.5 miles.
The river’s course through the Monument can be divided into two sections, Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing, also known as the White Cliffs section and then downstream from Judith to the take out at Kipp. The White Cliffs section has historically received the most attention from artists, the most notable was Johann Karl Bodmer who traveled though this section with the German explorer Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied from 1832 through 1834 on his Missouri River expedition. The entire rivers length within the Monument offers considerable inspiration to an artist like myself in search of beautiful, awe inspiring landscapes and abundant wildlife for subject matter.
The stretch of river in the White Cliffs and downstream to Hole in the Wall and Burnt Butte offer some of the most familiar and Iconic images of the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. Leaving the canoe on the bank and hiking up the cliffs was an entry way to some fantastic vistas. I spent 3 pre-dawn hikes away from the river and boat camp trying to capture a panoramic view of the massive White Cliffs across from Lewis and Clark’s May, 1805 campsite. Finally the sun and clouds cooperated and I saw what I wanted. Later that day I paddled my canoe across the river and pulled it out on the rocky shore and hiked inland. I was now “in the painting” so to speak, in the view that most travelers seen only from the water’s edge. I spent the day climbing and hiking around both sides of the small drainage that separates the massive blocks of Virgelle sandstone from the iconic monolith of La Barge Rock. This view inspired my painting of La Barge Rock, which was selected as the image for the BLM poster for the Monument and in 2016 was selected from all of the BLM Artist-in-Residence images nationwide to be on the National BLM poster.
Canoeing from Eagle Creek to the Hole in the Wall boat camp, I got the perfect light I was looking for on Citadel Rock, a National Historic Landmark and a favorite subject for painters. That morning I hiked up to the Hole in the Wall and spent the day up at its crest taking in the seemingly unlimited angles and views this deceptively complex formation has to offer those willing to scramble up to the crest.
La Barge Rock was selected as the image for the BLM poster for the Monument and in 2016 was selected from all of the BLM Artist-in-Residence images nationwide to be on the National BLM poster.
I watched a bald eagle take down a young Canada goose overhead canoeing past Judith Landing just as the sun was rising. Reluctant to leave its prize catch, the eagle allowed me to float closely past it, only glaring at me occasionally. Fall is migration time for waterfowl and with them come their predators, I saw a great many eagles and hawks on the second part of my journey. Also an abundance of mammals in the lower stretch; beaver, coyote, elk, deer and big horn sheep. It was fantastic to see a big horn ram running around his ewes right down at water level.
The most moving scenes of this lower section are the abandoned homesteads. At Hagedone Homestead and Gist Bottom, the buildings are just as the homesteaders left them decades ago, including canned goods in the pantry and a hand-made river boat, still in one piece sitting in the cow shed - its turquoise paint slowly fading. These interiors offered compelling subject matter and a glimpse of the lives of those who toughed out a living in this wild landscape. It is no wonder to me that Charlie Russell made this area of Montana his home and the people who lived here provided inspiration for so many of his paintings.
Paul completed over 30 paintings during his Artist-in-Residence of the Upper Missouri Breaks and a select few are presented here for your enjoyment.
White Cliffs Panorama
White Cliffs Upstream
Above Eagle Creek
Hole in the Wall
Hole in the Wall from Above
Sunrise at Gist Bottom
All of the original collection has been sold to Missouri Breaks enthusiasts. If you are interested in Commission Works from this memorable trip, please contact Paul to discuss your request.
Gist Bottom Homestead