From an artist’s perspective, James R. Bakke is the gift that keeps on giving.
The Whitefish artist, who died in 2013 at age 82, was widely known for his vividly colorful paintings, many of which are reminiscent of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Many of his Glacier National Park and Flathead Valley paintings were donated to the Stumptown Historical Society as his estate was settled; some depicting Northcentral Montana went to a museum in Rudyard on the Montana Hi-Line where Bakke grew up on a wheat farm.
Because Bakke loved open space and nature, he bequeathed four acres of wooded land in Whitefish to the city for use as a natural park.
Now there’s another treasure trove, a final gift from the unassuming, eclectic artist.
When Terry Abell of Whitefish, Bakke’s personal representative and executor of his estate, was cleaning out an old barn on Bakke’s property he came across a big box of color slides that had languished for decades.
Abell brought the slides to his good friend Bret Bouda, a well-known Kalispell photographer. As Bouda pored over the slides one evening, he realized Bakke had an extraordinary eye for photography. This was a collection of huge historical value, he said, noting how Bakke’s color images of Glacier Park in the 1950s are a rarity. Most photos of that era are in black and white.
“It’s a hidden treasure no one knew existed,” Bouda said.
“We knew it would be a major task” to convert the slides to photographs, he added.
But Bouda embraced the project and over the last three years has spent more than 900 hours scanning the slides with a special high-quality scanner that Abell purchased.
“I would start at 7 a.m. and go to 7 p.m. and could do 110 slides,” Bouda said.
Both men have donated time and money to the project, and both insist that preserving Bakke’s photographic collection is the bigger picture. It simply needed to be done.
A selection of more than 75 of Bakke’s photographs will be on display at the Museum at Central School in Kalispell starting Oct. 11 and continuing through mid-2018. Curated by Bouda, the exhibit portrays various subjects, “highlighting just how much the region has changed in a relatively short amount of time,” museum Executive Director Jacob Thomas said.
While the landscape and nature photographs of Glacier National Park are stunning, Bakke also photographed railroad workers, farm life, industry and the early years at Big Mountain Ski Resort. He captured images of the flood of 1964 and was there the day President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat arrived at the Kalispell airport to a crowd of thousands.
“This will be nostalgic for people who grew up here,” Thomas said about the collection.
Bakke created an oil painting from his snapshot of the Nixons; that painting is part of the exhibit.
“He had an eye for light,” Thomas continued. “His outdoor shots often focused on cloud formations.”
Bakke initially used his photography as a model for his painting.
His paintings are showcased in a coffee-table book, “James R. Bakke, Montana Artist,” written and compiled by Donna Shane Hopkins of Whitefish. She’ll be signing copies of the book at the opening reception for the exhibit, from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11.
Hopkins and her grandmother, Elizabeth Luding Hopkins, along with Bakke and his mother, Serena, took several day trips to Glacier Park in the summer of 1979 when Hopkins had moved to Whitefish for a time to live with her grandmother.
“James, always with his camera, would take dozens of photos before the end of the day,” Hopkins recalled in her book. “I knew he was an artist, but had no sense of the magnitude and diversity of his work, which grew to extraordinary proportions over the years.”
Bakke was raised on a farm near Gildford and moved to Whitefish in 1947 with his family. He graduated from Whitefish High School in 1949 and went to work for the railroad like so many of his peers from that era.
Photography was a passion for Bakke. A 1951 photograph shows him smiling, and he declared it was “the best summer of my life” because he finally had a camera to photograph the old family homestead, Glacier Park and other favorite spots.
Bouda said he recognized Bakke’s photographic savvy immediately.
“James was one of the best photographers this valley has seen,” he said. “He’s a true inspiration. When I look at his pictures, we have the same vision on how we perceive the world. His photography is always about beauty.”
Hopkins included in her book reflections written by Bakke at age 70, and again at age 80, that explain his yearning to capture life as he sees it.
At 70 he wrote: “I begin to understand very well what the great Vincent Van Gogh meant in a letter from his famous ‘Yellow House’ in Arles in the south of France to his brother Theo in Paris in the summer of 1888. He wrote, to paraphrase: ‘It is actually one’s duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of life. Color in painting is like enthusiasm in life. We are in need of gayety and happiness, of hope and love.’
“The more old, ugly, crippled, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well-arranged — resplendent...” Bakke wrote.
The Museum at Central School’s exhibit of Bakke photographs also will include some of his paintings on loan from the Stumptown Historical Society.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to show Bakke’s photography and paintings side-by-side, illuminating the artistic process and Bakke’s mastery of his craft,” Thomas said.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.