Judi Rideout | In the Eye of the Wolf

Survivors [1992], Pastel, 11 x 21. painting, southwest art.
Survivors [1992], Pastel, 11 x 21.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

From the south window of her studio, Alaskan artist Judi Rideout stares out to the jagged Chugach Mountains. Gray wolves are known to roam the range, making tracks in the snow a few miles from the artist’s front door. While Rideout may not see the illusive creatures in person, she captures their spirit on paper inside her warm studio walls. With pastel sticks she sketches their amber eyes, bushy coats of salt-and-pepper fur, and various poses singing, watching, waiting, and howling at the moon. “I don’t know why I started painting wolves,” Rideout says. “I think they found me.”

For the past 15 years, Rideout has been rising in the wintry pre-dawn light, reaching for her pastels, and losing herself in them until the late-afternoon sun sinks behind the mountains. In the process, she has become one of the foremost wolf artists in North America and a regular exhibitor at the Pacific Rim Wildlife Art Show in Seattle, WA.

Close Encounters [1994], Pastel, 13 x 28. painting, southwest art.
Close Encounters [1994], Pastel, 13 x 28.

In June her illustrations were published for the first time in Wolf Walking [1997 Stewart, Tabori & Chang], a book that explores the prominent role the wolf has played in North American cultures and mythologies. “What makes Judi different from some wildlife artists is that rather than fantasize about the frontier lifestyle, she actually lives it,” says Edwin Daniels, who wrote the text for Wolf Walking. “When you take chances choose an unconventional path you get in return a unique, on-the-edge perspective.”

Rideout’s love affair with the great outdoors began as a child growing up in Minnesota, where her father often took her on hunting and fishing trips. Later, so did her boyfriend Ken, a childhood sweetheart whom she married at age 16. Judi and Ken Rideout have much in common, including a powerful pull to the last frontier Alaska.

Although the Rideouts first settled in Brainerd, MN, a picturesque resort town sprinkled with lakes, the couple dreamed about an even more remote life in the wilderness. In 1973 they took a vacation to Alaska to see if their dream bore any resemblance to reality. “We took one look at each other and said, ‘this is it.’”

Caught in the Act [1996], Pastel, 9 x 25. painting, southwest art.
Caught in the Act [1996], Pastel, 9 x 25.

The Rideouts returned home, packed up their two children, three dogs, and a cat and drove west until they reached Palmer, AK, a small farming community about 50 miles north of Anchorage. There they purchased an acre of land laced with cottonwood trees and bisected by a spring-fed creek where red salmon spawn every summer.

The only structure on the property was a basement with a leaky roof that they quickly repaired so that they could move their brood inside before the long, cold winter encroached. When spring came, they began to build a home on top of the basement.

Of her exodus to Alaska, Rideout says in Wolf Walking: “It gave me a profound sense of freedom that I had never felt before. I believe there are moments in one’s life when the opportunity to live freely makes itself known. It’s a transitory moment, one that can slip through your fingers if you let it. That’s what I admire most about the wolves they’re free to wander and make the best of what they  find. And wolves, like those moments, sometimes appear unexpectedly.”

Family Affair [1997], Pastel, 251⁄2  x 101⁄2. painting, southwest art.
Family Affair [1997], Pastel, 251⁄2  x 101⁄2.

Rideout’s foray into art unfolded several years after her arrival in Alaska. She wanted to learn to draw, so she drove to the art supply store in Anchorage and purchased colored pencils, pastels, and art paper. In 1977 she signed up to work in an artist’s co-op, volunteering as a clerk every afternoon. When the co-op wasn’t busy, she drew and painted. In return for her help, the co-op showed her art.

Not surprisingly, Rideout’s art interests quickly evolved to drawing animals. On hunting and fishing trips with her husband, she found herself spending more and more time photographing the moose, caribou, and bears. Once home, she sketched from her photographs while experimenting with different media.

Oils and acrylics dried too quickly, she discovered. For example, if she had to pick up her children from school, she was forced to concoct another mixture of paint when she returned, and a perfect match of the desired shades proved difficult. Then she discovered that chalk-like pastels, with their soft, buttery texture, worked well for the backgrounds of her paintings and that harder pastels were good for the layers of paint needed to compose animals’ fur. And she preferred them to a brush, which seemed to separate her from the canvas.

By 1981 her shows were selling out, so she made the leap into full-time art, giving up her morning job and making space for a studio in her home. She began to include wolves in every wildlife art exhibition she entered, returning to the subject over and over again.

“It’s mysterious, but I’m always trying to paint the perfect wolf,” Rideout says. For her, the secret is in the eyes. “I try to capture their spirit. If I don’t get the eyes right, I don’t get the soul,” she says. The range of color in the wolf’s eye always intrigues Rideout, and she constantly adjusts the shades of gold, amber, yellow, and brown that flicker in the gaze of the untamed animal. She has seen a wolf in the wild only once, but she spends hours at wolf sanctuaries photographing, observing, and studying their poses and faces.

Today Rideout, 52, is a grandmother; her two children have grown, married, and settled nearby. She is fond of reflecting back 25 years and saying that if someone had told her she would be an artist, she would have laughed hysterically. But now she realizes that moving to Alaska changed her life and convinced her that all things are possible.

In the chapter of Wolf Walking about her life and art, Rideout concludes: “I’m not a particularly mystical person. But I have come to embrace the spirit of the wolf that lives in the Northwest Coast Salish totem stories. They say the wolf bestows its happy spirit to help people. Women who obtain this spirit become skilled in creative endeavors and experience a strengthening of the senses. I would like to think there is some truth to this in my own life.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Artique, Anchorage, AK; The Big Picture, Juno, AK; and Madd Matter, Palmer, AK.

Featured in November 1997