An Unexpected Gift

Last November, 82-year-old Sara Nelson sent me an email. She had heard about my search for Eugene Landry’s art and sent two photos of paintings she owned, offering to show them to me after the holidays. In the meantime, we messaged back and forth. Sara wrote “I am deaf so can only communicate via email or texting. You can call my husband, Charley…” She added that Charley, an Alaskan Native, excavates fossilized walrus ivory for scrimshaw carvings. Because  I am a metalsmith who incorporates organic materials in my work, she thought I would like to see some of Charley’s lapidary art too. I was definitely interested.

Carefully unfolding the brittle paper. photo by Marcy Merrill

After 46 consecutive days of rain, the sun came out last week, and so did Sara Nelson. My friend, professional photographer Marcy Merrill was on hand to document the art while Sara and I visited.

I asked Sara to tell us where the art came from;

“Fred Landry, his (Gene’s) daddy, he was a sweet man. I met him at a sale he was having, and he told me to pick out some of them and I did. In the old barn. In about 1995. There must have been 30 to 40 pictures, sketches…He owned them. I saw that the water was creeping up toward them. I had them framed and carried them from house to house to house.”

oil on canvas, 16×20, 1972

It was great to see another one of Gene’s nudes. As of this posting, the model’s identity (like all of his nude models) remains unknown. Judging by the dark green background it was most likely painted in his cabin on Shoalwater Bay.

There was also a charcoal drawing of a decaying dock scene, the location unknown and undated, but judging by the condition of the paper and the style, probably from the 1960s. And another painting-of Gene’s art studio.


Studio, 20×24 oil on board, 1962

The painting is unsigned but a pencil inscription on the back in Gene’s hand reads March 9, 1962. Other canvases from this time period list a 15th Ave address in Seattle.

There is a moodiness about this piece, a noir-ish quality: the dark wooden door and molding, the ancient corner sink and exposed pipe, the battered-green dresser. In the center of the room, a cadmium-red scarf is draped across a wooden stool, a slash of scarlet echoed by the red blooms in the vase. A wooden easel adds a vertical element to the composition, as does the door, the pipe, and the edge of the wall.

The sink is stained with paint, the top of the dresser holds cans of turpentine and linseed oil. You can almost smell the intoxicatingly piney odor, warmed by the afternoon sun streaming through the window. A wastebasket set in the middle of the floor glows, golden in the light. A portrait on the wall, partially reflected in a mirror. The room itself has become a still-life.


As the afternoon came to a close, Sara gathered up fossiled walrus ivory and agates from the table, giving a few to me for jewelry making. She handed me a manuscript she helped Charley’s mother, who was an Eskimo Native, to produce containing turn-of-the-century Alaskan history. It is an eye-opening read.

Then Sara made another gift to me. It took me completely by surprise. I asked if she was sure. She said, “I wanted  to make sure it went to someone who would love it and I knew you would.”

Thank you, Sara! photo by Marcy Merrill





Black History Month

When Eugene Landry painted this portrait of a young African-American schoolboy in 1962, the fight to desegregate the public education system was in full swing. Seven years after Brown v Board of Education, the battle raged on. While news headlines shouted of riotous mobs and integration troubles, Gene put a human face on the issue with his paintbrush.

Two years later the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibited unfair voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodation. The legislation was proposed by President Kennedy 1963 but opposed by a Senate filibuster. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Johnson pushed the bill forward. It was signed into law on July 2, 1964.

Eddie Smith, May 31, 1962

The second of three portraits from this era is of a young man named Eddie Smith. His front-faced stare creates a powerful presence.The camouflage-green shirt he wears alludes to the very real likelihood of impending military service.

“The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of African-Americans ever to serve in an American war. There was a marked turnaround from the attitude in previous wars that black men were not fit for combat – during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action.”-The History Detectives PBS

October 1963

The final portrait is loose with a lot of unpainted canvas. Landry’s model is cool, dignified and self-contained. The sketchy quality of the outlying brushwork forces the focus to the model’s face. He appears to be about the same age as Eddie Smith, but there is no name or artist signature, only a date on the back of the canvas board. Gene painted this portrait, like the preceding two, in Seattle. He lived in a racially mixed section of the city, and all of these models may have been his neighbors or friends. Today they would be in their 70s or early 80s.

Museum Memory

In 1976, the Landry Family opened their Smoke Signal Museum to the public. Admission was free. A labor of love, Fred Landry built the lodge-style building from logs salvaged in nearby woods. He painted a Kwakiutl style (British Columbia) sea serpent across the entrance.

Betty Butler, a newspaper columnist for The Daily World wrote; “The project was planned, executed and financed entirely by the Landry family-Fred, a Chippewa Indian; Myrtle, a descendant of tribal chieftains of the Shoalwater Indians, and their son Eugene, a noted Northwest artist. The interior, with beams, posts and exposed rafters of unpeeled logs. Gives the feeling of an Indian longhouse.”

The museum showcased an extensive basket collection, masks, drums, shields and more. There was also a large display of pioneer-era tools, old logging equipment and fishing gear.

“Storytelling was our Netflix, our Hulu, our YouTube, for long winter nights.”

Last fall, Harvest Moon, Quinault Indian Nation Ambassador, came to the library at Shoalwater Bay to tell stories. She began by setting an assortment of baskets, rattles, and rocks on a table. To this she added a book, Where Bigfoot Walks, by Robert Michael Pyle. She talked about getting cast as a storyteller in the soon-to-be-released film version of the book, saying that even though she had to miss a day of bark-pulling (she is a renowned basket maker) it was worth it.

Harvest uses her entire body to tell a story; facial expressions, voice, and gestures bring characters to life. Adding to this are the props she picks up from the nearby table; rattles that sound like the rustling of leaves, or objects such as a tiny canoe that draw us deeper into the action.

“Stories can teach morals, they can entertain.”

In “No Ears”, a cautionary tale about the importance of listening, the storyteller mimics characters taking selfies and scrolling on their phones, transforming an ancient story into a tale of today. We followed the exploits of a bratty girl called “No Ears” who refuses to listen to anyone, and as a result is shunned by her people, which turn her into a spiteful monster.

Stories As Property

Harvest Moon, has been a storyteller for 34 years.In the native world,one needs permission to tell another’s story. Some of the stories Harvest tells were given to her; others are her own. An elder now,she happily tells us “there’s a new generation of storytellers emerging.”
Harvest Moon, aka Stephanie Cultee, is the niece of Eugene Landry. How fitting that the library where she told stories is located on the former site of Gene’s studio. She was very happy to learn about the upcoming exhibit of her Uncle’s Gene’s art in late May 2020.

Harvest Moon (center) with Dawn Michelle Wilson (L) and her daughter, Kris Torset, Shoalwater Bay Museum’s Cultural Specialist.
After the storytelling, attendees learned to make corn-husk dolls.
Heritage Museum wood carving display, created during the People of the Adze program by Head Carver Earl Davis and his apprentices Kenny Waltman and Brandt Ellingburg. 2019 photo by Marcy Merrill.