Why are Eugene Landry’s paintings getting their first exhibition outside his southwest Washington hometown in 50 years, more than three decades after he died?
Landry was a gifted painter in oils and watercolors, and his story of creative persistence against enormous physical challenges would be compelling enough on its own. But the fact that the paintings were produced by a partly paralyzed artist living on a neglected reservation of Indigenous people, at a time when tribes like his fought merely for the right to have their existence recognized, makes the show at Astoria Visual Arts a powerful testament to human and tribal resilience.
Thanks to curator Judith Altruda of Astoria, who still keeps her home in Tokeland, Wash., home to the Shoalwater Bay tribal reservation, visitors to the gallery through Dec. 6 will see a representative sampling of Landry’s work, as well as the work of a new generation of tribal artists. They are filmmakers, photographers, painters, and beadworkers who are heirs to Landry’s tradition of creative expression.
Eugene would be “thrilled to fucking death” to headline such a showing, said Altruda, who met Landry briefly on several occasions when she was a young artist settling into the community in and around Tokeland and he was a quiet presence in his wheelchair. Landry always loved to encourage and support other artists, she said.
The show is an overdue tribute to Landry’s nearly lost output — paintings of local scenes, portraits of people he knew, and still lifes that display his classical training. The more she learned about Landry, the more Altruda became obsessed with tracing his story and bringing his paintings back into the light of day. She is the author and editor of Portrait of Gene: An Artist, a Tribe and a Time, a book published with the help of a Humanities Washington storytellers grant. She is close to completing another book, a narrative nonfiction account of Landry’s life and her own journey to reclaim and illuminate his work.
As Landry’s story gripped her, Altruda chased many leads. So-and-so had a painting; another person had a print nailed to his wall. Then she followed a tip that took her to the attic of a barn, and under a tarp, she found a great trove of his paintings, stacked unceremoniously and gathering dust and mold. They were paintings of people and places, recognizable as Landry’s even in the semi-dark.
Altruda almost couldn’t believe it. “Is this really happening?” she wondered. It felt, she said, “like a Nancy Drew moment.” Along with her photographer friend Marcy Merrill, who took pictures of each of the hidden paintings, she celebrated the find.
But what to do? Could the paintings be brought out of storage, cleaned and restored? Could they be reclaimed by the tribe? In the end, Altruda did the clearest, simplest thing: She bought them from the woman who owned the barn and who had been given the paintings by an aged Fred Landry, Gene’s father.
Two years ago, the first Gene Landry show, featuring 30 of his paintings, was mounted at the Shoalwater Bay Tribal Community Library and Heritage Museum in Tokeland. Altruda has many more of Landry’s works, and she is selecting 10 or so for the AVA show.
Who was Gene Landry?
Landry was born on the Quinault reservation to parents of the Hoh and Quileute tribes, and as an infant, he was adopted by Myrtle and Fred Landry, who reared him in Shoalwater Bay, where he enrolled as a member of the Shoalwater tribe. He was an active young man, running, playing football, and boxing.
In his senior year of high school, he contracted meningitis, which paralyzed his legs. He was hospitalized for more than two years near Tacoma, then as a paraplegic, moved with his family to Seattle, where he enrolled in art school. (These details are included in Altruda’s brief online biography of the painter at eugenelandry.com.)
Landry grew up as a right-hander, but after he was paralyzed, he was dropped by his caregivers, suffering further injuries and forcing him to shift to painting with his non-dominant, left hand. His abilities continued to erode, and, at some point in his 40s, he stopped painting, dissatisfied by his inability to produce the images he imagined. When he died in 1988 at age 50, he was considered a quadriplegic.
His formal art training took place in the early 1960s at the Leon F. Derbyshire School of Art in Seattle, and he also studied with sculptor Philip Levine. He traveled to Paris, Mexico ,and elsewhere with his wife, an artist named Sharon Billingsley. After their divorce, Landry operated an art gallery in Santa Barbara, Calif., with his business partner and caregiver.
Earl Davis, a Shoalwater Bay tribal member and cultural director of Na’m’sc’ac Heritage Museum in Tokeland, Wash., said Landry’s work represents more than the vision of a single artist. Even though Landry probably didn’t anticipate it, Davis said, his work provides “cultural cues” that illuminate Shoalwater life in the Sixties and Seventies, a critical period for the tribe.
Altruda feels an almost mystical connection to Landry, from the first time they exchanged gazes in Tokeland to her quest to carry his vision into the broader world. She is pleased to acquaint new audiences with his work, both so they will come to know him, and also to learn about the history of the Shoalwater tribe.
This story first appeared in HIPFISHmonthly and is republished here by permission.
Contemporary Shoalwater Bay tribal artists
Portrait of Eugene Landry—an Artist, a Time and a Tribe brings together the artwork of Eugene Landry (1937-1988) with contemporary Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe artists and writers as they explore their cultural roots, tribal identity, and connection to ancestral land. Now, 35 years after Landry’s passing, a rediscovered collection of Landry’s art inspires a new generation of Shoalwater Bay artists.
In addition to Landry’s paintings, the young artists will display works in a range of mediums: woodwork, photography, painting, beadwork and film. “It is an important index that highlights a turning point in tribal history,” carver Earl Davis says of Landry’s art. “Many of our elders, when viewing Eugene’s work, reflect upon those times and begin sharing those stories with us. I doubt that he ever intended his work to be such important cultural cues, but that’s exactly what they have become.”
Dakota Davis, 21, the son of carver Earl Davis, is exhibiting photography that “is inspired by the stories of my ancestors … I explore my cultural identity through photos of prayers … I try to tie in myself as an object to the natural world around us.”
Sophia Anderson, 24, paints portraits of her ancestors on wood reclaimed from homes that washed into the sea at a nearby beach. Her mission is to “interpret the relationships between genealogical and geographical history and trauma.”
Madison, 24, works with multiple mediums from makeup to ink on paper, digital art, beadwork and sewing. She is influenced by her grandmother, a master bead worker, whose works will also be displayed.
Erik Sanchez, 32, is pursuing his masters degree in filmmaking at California Institute of the Arts. His nine-minute documentary about Eugene Landry features interviews with tribal elders and scenes from the Shoalwater Bay Reservation.
A chapbook featuring the works of seven tribal writers—Keven Shipman, Jackson Wargo, Leatta Anderson, Mary Davis Downs, Deaja Rosander, J. Salakie, and Misty Shipman—produced by curator Judith Altruda and AVA, is available during the exhibit.
This story, excerpted from curator Judith Altruda’s statement for the Astoria Visual Arts exhibition, also appeared in HIPFISHmonthly and is republished here by permission.
- Where: Astoria Visual Arts, 1000 Duane Street, Astoria, Oregon
- Through: Dec. 6
- Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays through Sundays
- Artists panel discussion: The contemporary Shoalwater Bay artists will talk in the gallery at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2