Bakke was born in 1931 and raised on 1,000 acres of wheatland near Gildford, Montana where his love of color and attention to detail were developed by years of watching his family live through harsh winters and glorious summers. The youngest of nine children, James was more interested in drawing pictures of the “family estate” than preparing for the slaughter of the cattle they had raised. His early work is primarily in crayon with some pen and ink and charcoal drawings.
Bakke moved to Whitefish with his parents when he was 16 to finish high school, after which he took a job for the Great Northern Railway in Whitefish. His first paycheck from the railroad enabled him to purchase a camera and to take oil painting lessons in the late 1940s.
When a friend introduced him to the back country of Glacier National Park, his life changed forever. He took 1,000s of photos of the spectacular vistas he saw as he hiked 100s of miles of trails through the park. From those photos he began to develop his unique style of impressionistic painting inspired by his passion for the work of Vincent van Gogh.