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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Alan Liere: Wildlife artist creates vision to replace keepsakes lost to fire

By Alan Liere For The Spokesman-Review

Artist Jim McGee was at his easel when I arrived, working to create a vision in oil paints on a piece of hardboard.

The process was slower than usual because it was MY vision, and he was trying to paint a scene he didn’t witness – my Brittany, Lucy, on point by an old barn – the day she slammed into a point on a hot pheasant scent while running full tilt through tall weeds and grass.

Lucy didn’t cock a front leg in one of her classic points that day, but I couldn’t forget the way she stretched out low and turned her body, the intense focus in her eyes screaming, “Right here, boss, right here!” That intensity was the feeling I hoped McGee could recreate for the picture that would hang in my home.

My son Matt and my son-in-law Seth had accompanied Lucy and me to McGee’s studio overlooking Calispell Lake in the 70-year-old home he is restoring near Usk, Washington. He had called, asking me to bring Lucy up. He was not yet satisfied with the face he had painted, and the four of us were soon brandishing cameras, trying almost comically to make Lucy resume the pose I remembered.

Lucy, however, wasn’t cooperative. During the next hour, we shot over 100 images, hoping to get one that reflected that special day afield.

At 72, McGee has always been an artist. He attended Cusick schools, graduating in 1967, but his art career, or at least his passion for art, began much earlier when his folks managed a duck club on Calispell Lake and ran cattle on the grounds.

He sold his first picture – a clipper ship – for $7 when he was 11. After high school graduation, he enrolled in a three-year art program at Spokane Falls Community College, which at the time had the second-best art program in the West.

After two years, however, McGee decided the school’s focus on ad art wasn’t for him. He quit and went to work in a lumber mill in Ione, Washington, but he kept painting. More and more, wildlife art in oils became his focus.

In 1974, he left the mill and went to work as a chemist in a cement plant. While there, McGee continued to paint and to sell paintings, but after 10 years he decided he needed a change and could make as much by having the freedom to paint more and to travel and exhibit his art. He moved to a rented house on Lake Coeur d’Alene, and the beauty and serenity of the lake inspired him even further.

Ten years later, at the urging of his mother, McGee moved again – back to Calispell Lake and the duck club, which had deteriorated significantly when his folks retired. McGee relished the idea of being closer to them and back at Calispell Lake.

He became the new caretaker at the duck club, and over the next 20 years he rebuilt and then continued to maintain the premises, restoring it as the premier duck hunting destination it had once been, largely with his own money.

While he kept painting, the time he could devote to it diminished, as did the traveling to various art shows and conservation and wildlife fund raisers. He had developed a following for his art that included a collector in Montana with 43 paintings and one in Idaho with 30.

McGee said he has tried all mediums but prefers oils on hardboard, like Masonite. One of his largest paintings was a magnificent bull elk, which hangs over the massive fireplace in the Filson store in Seattle. Although that painting sold for $7,500, most of his work is far more affordable.

I found McGee by chance. A taxidermist friend had met him at a Safari Club banquet and had traded some taxidermy work for a painting. We went out to see McGee and look at his art when he was the duck club caretaker. We talked about everything hunting, especially his passion for pursuing grouse over his small Brittany, Casey.

A few years after that meeting, right after I acquired a Brittany of my own, McGee was “let go” as caretaker of the duck club – a poor money-saving decision as it turns out, as the site has again fallen into disrepair. McGee, however, moved just down the road and is finding a lot more time to paint.

McGee and I and our Brittany spaniels enjoy a pheasant hunt together now and then. I had always coveted one of his paintings, but my house already looked like a wildlife museum and there wasn’t room on the walls for anything more.

Then, last August, I lost four decades of accumulated photographs, art and taxidermy when my house burned to the ground.

In February, I began rebuilding on the old site, but as the Sheetrock went up, I was struck by how barren the walls would be. I figured if I didn’t have anything else, a McGee original would bring me much joy. I bought his beautiful framed painting of a drift boat and fly fisherman on the North Fork Clearwater River, and then, on an impulse, I commissioned McGee to do the Lucy painting.

That picture and the new house were completed at the same time. The beautiful, timeless oil McGee painted for me is displayed on a cedar wall with a ceiling art light bathing it in a soft autumn afternoon glow. It fills my new living room with life and my heart with anticipation for many more glorious days afield, following a brown and white Brittany through tall grass and golden Palouse country stubble.

You can contact Jim McGee at jmcgeestudio1@gmail.com.

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