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.

 

 

Jeffro and the Lost Landry Print

Jeffro and the Lost Landry Print

Driftwood horse construction, 2021

Tokeland artist Jeffro Uitto http://www.jeffrouitto.com/home.html collects his “art supplies” off the beach. He creates life size sculptures of horses, lions, eagles, rhinos and whales, using locally collected driftwood. Each piece of wood, shaped by the elements of tide and time, is used “as found”. Each work is constructed intuitively, somewhat like piecing together a puzzle. It can take years to find the right piece to complete a sculpture. When finished, the works travel far from Tokeland—to art shows, music festivals, galleries and museums across the world.

Recently, Jeffro found a previously unknown work by late Tokeland artist Eugene Landry–and delivered another puzzle piece in Landry’s story.

Jeffro, age 40, grew up here. While he never met Gene, as a child he and other local kids played in Landry’s abandoned geodesic dome.

 

“It was like a clubhouse,” he said. The dome overlooked a driftwood-strewn beach offering miles of beachcombing treasure.

Last summer, Jeffro was helping neighbors repair their roof when he spotted a Landry print in their garage. “I recognized Gene’s style right away,” he said. His elderly neighbors had bought it years ago at an estate sale; it had been stapled to their garage ever since. He bartered for the print, then carefully removed the rusting staples holding it to the wall. Other than a few small holes, it is in excellent condition.

The scene on left, of weathered boats and female nude, like Venus rising out of the mudflats, is a companion piece to “Brown’s Point”, (1978) on the right.

Brown’s Point, 1978 ink and watercolor, offset reproduction

Untitled from Brown's Point

newly found Landry lithograph

Landry’s loose, gestural lines interplay with watercolor washes, like soft jazz chords accenting a melody.  Landry’s confident style belies the reality of his physical decline. He was steadily loosing control of his only usable hand. Up until the late ’70s, he had painted mostly still lifes and portraits in oils. But, due to the physical exertion of working for prolonged periods on a single oil painting, he began working almost entirely in watercolor. His subject matter also shifted— from his self-described “trademark” bleached cow skull to outdoor scenes. In a 1978 interview, Gene said, “My art has changed. The skull is down there nailed to a tree by the path now. It’s semi-retired…All artists thrive on new experiences.”

Jeffro agrees with Landry:  “I think that’s completely true, [about artists thriving on new experiences]. New experiences “bring new ideas, new objects of inspiration.”

Jeff Uitto in his workshop, 2022.

Jeffro generously donated the print to the Landry exhibit. Soon it will be framed (staple holes and all) and displayed at the tribal museum. Meanwhile, one wonders: was this part of a series? Are there more lost works out there waiting–like puzzle pieces—to be found?

Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Independence Day: Poggie’s Last Stand?

Independence Day: Poggie’s Last Stand?

L: Kenneth “Poggie” Baker, 82, “showing the ropes” to a new generation. Raleigh Anderson, 20, gets an education in fireworks-and tribal history- while working in Baker’s warehouse.

On a late June morning at Shoalwater Bay, Kenneth “Poggie” Baker rode his motorized “Jazzy” scooter along the shoulder of Highway 105, against traffic. An American flag fluttered behind him as he lumbered along, cap pulled low over his face to keep out the sun. The 82-year-old entrepreneur headed to work, passing seven firework stands in the half mile between the casino and Chief Charley’s Smoke Shop. There, he crossed the road and motored to his “office”; a huge garage stuffed with cases of pyrotechnics.

Baker’s helper, tribal member Raleigh Anderson, checks the inventory: Excalibur, Chicken on a Chain, One Bad Mother, Loyal to None, “cakes” “backpacks” “canisters” and more.  Throughout the day, firework stand owners will stop by to replenish their stock. Business is brisk as July 4th approaches.

Almost 60 years ago, Baker and his extended family opened one of the first Indian reservation firework stands in Washington State.

“My aunt, Myrtle Landry, her son Gene [Eugene Landry] and her husband Fred came up with the idea,” the elder says. “They got everybody involved.” It was 1965. Five family members invested $500 apiece to buy inventory. “Reginald Hunter and I drove a truck down to Canby, Oregon and filled it full of fireworks.”

Baker’s brother in law, Reginald Hunter, riding atop Myrtle Landry’s Cadillac, 1979

They parked their 1950 Chevy pickup in an open field on the reservation. Their open-air display was set up on “a couple of saw horses with planks across them.” Their inventory was limited: M80s, red white and blue firecrackers, bottle rockets, fire crackers and fountains. Baker still remembers their first sale, to “four young guys in a yellow VW bug. They spent over $100. That was a lot of fireworks.” (Back then, firecrackers sold for a penny apiece.)

They sold out the first day and got another truckload. They did this several times, and then bought a trailer-full of inventory.

The next year they built two stands. Eugene Landry designed a mural for one of the stands. “It looked like a sunrise with red white and blue beams,” Baker recalled.  “Gene was at the stand every day. He counted the money. It was Gene’s idea to raise the price of firecrackers to 4 cents.”

Brothers and partners: Dennis Baker (L) and “Poggie” Baker (L) 1965.

As the big holiday drew near, customers “came out of the woodwork.” They usually sold out before Independence Day. On July 4th, “We’d have a family show. We built a big fire out by the road; put a big pot on it, boiled hot dogs and had pop or beer for whoever wanted to stop by. It was a lot of fun.”

But there were also challenges from the Feds and the State.

In the mid-1970s, Baker got  a call from a friend who worked at the State Capitol, who warned that US Marshals were heading to Shoalwater Bay to raid their stands. “We removed most of the inventory, just left a small amount on the shelves. Everybody was sitting out in the parking lot, waiting for them to arrive, even the kids.” Two Federal Marshals pulled up in an unmarked car. “One guy sat there with his hand on his gun. The man who came to the stand wore a pistol. He said they were here to confiscate our illegal fireworks. I asked to see his ID.”

The Marshall seized all the firecrackers and bottle rockets, but “had to leave the smoke balls because they weren’t illegal.” After the officer piled everything up, he asked Baker for a bag. “I told him no.” The elder chuckled. “Then he asked for a box… The answer was negative.” State Senator Slade Gorton sent  Baker a letter,  “telling me I was a communist-or Un-American. I wrote back and said I had a right to sell fireworks here, we are a sovereign nation.”

Baker mused, “I always thought it would be nice to have a painting of an Indian in a fireworks stand and a marshal with his hand on his gun, and three little kids peaking around the corner at them. Who was that guy who used to do all the Americana?

“Norman Rockwell?”

“Yeah. That would have been a hell of a Rockwell.”

Tires crunched on gravel as a truck backed up to the warehouse. Baker put his coffee cup down. He would have to continue his story later. Independence Day was just around the corner.

 Originally published in the July 2021 Shoalwater Bay Tribal Newsletter. (Updated for 2022.)