Gap Year in Tokeland

Gap Year in Tokeland

In 1970, Bill Mueller, a third-year art student at the University of Oregon was at a crossroads in his life. “It was a difficult time for me,” he recounted in 2021,  “I was only 23 or 24 years old; I’m wondering what this is all about? What is my future going to be?” Seeking answers, the future public works sculptor took a year off from his studies. He moved to the tiny fishing village of Tokeland. There, he met Eugene Landry.

“I think we must have met at Capt’s Tavern.” The local’s hangout overlooked a salt marsh and was steps away from the cabin where Bill was living. He described how Gene “stood out” in the tiny community; “He was like a rock star, driven around in a either a vintage ’49 Cadillac or a Citroen by his Canadian caregiver.” Discovering they had a common interest in art, Gene invited Bill to his studio on Willapa Bay.

“One day he asked if he could paint my portrait.  It was a beautiful day, sunny. The light quality was incredible. There were some windows facing the ocean. We ended up in a long conversation. He was engaged with me on one level and on another level, he was very engaged in painting. When he painted, he was in another world. He was not in a wheelchair.”

Bill recalled how Gene held a brush between his teeth to add details, “It made a different sound when it contacted the canvas–different from when he hand-held it.”

Portrait of William Mueller by Eugene Landry, oil on canvas, 32″x17″ 1970

Landry became an art mentor for Bill. “I’m hanging out with Gene, visiting with him. He’s telling me all kinds of stories. It’s like he also was part of my journey to the art world. He had been to the art school in Seattle. My brother said he also went to Paris. I really cherished the time I got to spend with him.”

The following year, Bill returned to the University of Oregon. There, he came under the tutelage of Jan Zach, Chair of the Sculpture Department and an internationally known Czech/American sculptor. Bill graduated with a BFA in sculpture in 1974, and worked as Zach’s assistant for 9 years on large-scale public art commissions.

Bill has enjoyed a long and successful career in public art; his large scale sculptures can be seen in many towns along the west coast, Idaho and Colorado.

“Journey to Paradise”
Sited at Plaza of the Rockies, Colorado Springs, CO

Upon learning about the ongoing Eugene Landry exhibit at the Shoalwater Bay Tribal Museum, Bill donated two letters Gene wrote to him when he resumed his studies at the U of O. “Gene wrote one of them from Arizona. He’s saying ‘I’m going a little crazy, away from the ocean. And then you flip it over and he did a drawing of a guillotine. It’s a wonderful letter from him, handwritten in black ink.”

“Being that far from the ocean and water does funny things to your head.”

In August 2022, Bill and his family traveled from their home in Sedalia, Colorado to Washington State for a family reunion. They came out to Tokeland and revisited old haunts.

The cabin where Bill lived in 1970, still standing in 2022.

 

They went to the Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum to see the Landry exhibit.  Located near the former site of Gene’s studio, its windows overlook the same view as when Bill sat for his portrait over 50 years ago. The impact of encountering his friend’s art after so many years was, at times, emotional.

Looking back, Bill reflected; “It’s interesting when you meet somebody who has a challenge like that. He was only 34 or 35 when I met him. He was still a young man. He loved painting and it brought him a great deal of pleasure. He was very animated. He was somebody to me that transcended his physical condition. And I was amazed by him.”

William Mueller, Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum, with Landry’s letters in display case.