TOKELAND — Artist Judith Altruda wasn’t on a treasure hunt. But what she discovered has the Shoalwater Bay Tribe buzzing with excitement.
In the attic of an old building in Grayland, Altruda uncovered about 70 paintings dating back many decades. The still lifes, nudes and portraits were water damaged and mildewed, but all had a distinctive style.
Closer examination revealed they were the work of Eugene Landry, whose history overcoming a significant disability was as remarkable as Altruda’s find.
Now the tribe is gearing up to exhibit the work at the Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum this summer, eager to tell Landry’s tale.
“I think for us it’s bringing back part of our history,” said Charlene Nelson, tribal chairwoman, pride rippling through her voice.
““We are trying to build an audience for Gene’s work,” Altruda added. As well as renovation work on the pictures, she has worked to compile a 52-page catalogue of memories called “Portrait of Gene” that pays tribute to his “unbreakable creative spirit.”
This has been produced with funding from a Humanities Washington 2019 Storytellers Grant and is being sold at cost.
Landry died in 1988 aged 50 after a career as an artist that spanned crucial decades in Southwest Washington Native American history.
Confined to a wheelchair because of an illness during his late teenage years, he taught himself to paint and draw left handed after a further serious injury. As his physical abilities drained, toward the end he was painting with a brush clamped in his mouth, with family members squeezing paint onto his palette.
His determination is mirrored by those working to bring his life and art to the attention of the public. “There’s no way it can’t happen,” Altruda beamed. “There’s no stopping it!”
Landry was of Hoh and Quileute descent. He was born in 1937 in Taholah on the Quinault Reservation, the son of a professional boxer, Austin Rossander, whose ring name was “Fighting Jack Rosy.”
When his biological parents encountered life difficulties, another couple stepped forward. He was adopted by Myrtle and Fred Landry, and grew up at Shoalwater Bay.
He attended Ocosta schools and was reportedly a vital young man, boxing like his real father, playing football and running, as well as developing his art.
During his senior year, tubercular meningitis paralyzed his legs and this sent him to the Cushman Indian Hospital near Tacoma. During later rehabilitation, aides dropped him — causing a spine injury and permanent damage to his dominant right arm. “He trained himself to paint with his left hand,” Altruda said.
After coping at first with braces and crutches, he eventually had to remain in a wheelchair, later driving a car with adapted hand controls.
“He was quite the buff athlete and hard inside,” Altruda said, suggesting that helped drive him to overcome adversity.
Landry’s art was distinctive. “Gene didn’t have the opportunity to study with other traditional artists growing up,” Altruda said.
Details of his life appear on her blog. She writes that in 1961, Landry enrolled in art school in Seattle. He was married to Sharon Billingsley, an artist and model, for seven years and they traveled to Paris to study post-impressionism.
During an era where abstract expressionism was in vogue, Altruda said Landry’s art tended toward more representational work. She noted that his travels took him to Southwest, Mexico and the Philippines, seeking traditional healers, and in the 1980s he had a gallery in Santa Barbara, California.
“He didn’t care what the art style was, he painted what he wanted to paint,” she said. “There are recurring motifs: half-hammered nails, bones, thistle-like flowers and empty bottles — I think he enjoyed the reflections.”
One detail that recurs is a pencil hanging on a string, perhaps something the artist used to avoid the discomfort of trying to retrieve a dropped item. “There are idiosyncratic details that seem to go into his paintings,” she said. “Everything in a painting is put there on purpose.”
The exhibit will be entitled, “Eugene Landry. An artist, a time and a tribe.”
The “time” part of the title is significant. In the 1960s and 1970s, the tribe was struggling for federal recognition, working to preserve its language and history while creating housing to provide more opportunities for people to move back to the reservation.
Writing on her blog, Altruda pulls no punches about the era. “Landry’s art offers a glimpse into a transitional and little-documented time in Northwest Native history,” she wrote. “His paintings are important because they represent an indigenous artist’s portrayal of his own people during a time when Native Americans were erased, marginalized, and misrepresented by stereotypes in media and public education.
“Landry painted contemporary portraits of his people, depicting them as they were.”
One element remains a mystery: Who are the Native people depicted in the paintings? One of Fred Landry is evident; so is a 1971 depiction of the late Bruce Davis, whose son, Earl, plays an important part of the Shoalwaters’ cultural preservation.
But many of the faces are anonymous. Altruda has many images posted on her web page and is eager to make contact with anyone who recognizes them — or may see themselves. The website www.eugenelandry.com includes a way to do this.
“There were many portraits in the collection, and maybe there are some tribal members still living who were painted 50 years ago,” she said. “1969-70-71 was a very significant time politically here.
His models shed light on tribal history.”
A key player making the exhibit happen is Kristine Torset, cultural specialist with the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. As a girl, she knew Landry, and visited his cabin, which was moved to the site of the museum from Washaway Beach. “He was fairly quiet, but really funny,” she recalled.
Myrtle Landry was her great aunt, and she remembers her mother, Dawn Wilson, describing how Landry painted while they listened to Santana’s music.
The exhibit will open at the Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum May 29; after about three months, it will travel to other cultural centers.
For Nelson, who heads the tribe, just talking about the project and Landry’s life is meaningful. “It’s like he’s here, too,” she smiled.
Altruda is a metalwork artist. As she speaks about her hunt for information to flesh out Landry’s remarkable story, it is clear the mission has been satisfying. “His talent was immense, and his body of work was prolific,” she said. “His content was relevant because it contains mid-century tribal people and history.
“He strove to be artistically recognized. I think he would be happy to know that his art is going to be shared.”