This is the second part in a series focusing on the work of Clayton Landry* through an interview with George Lawrence. This post looks in detail at Landry’s insightful interpretations of his life in the US Navy.
3. Landry and the naval works
Kate Davey: Landry’s work expands across a range of subject matter – from images of food preparation and recipes, to animals and nature, to inventions, but perhaps his most intriguing work is that which relates to his life in the US Navy. His depictions of life in the Navy, including submarine bases, Navy ships, self-portraits in uniform, and specific Naval missions are fascinating both from an aesthetic and historical perspective. Unlike many of the most well-known outsider artists, for example Madge Gill, Martin Ramirez or Henry Darger, Landry doesn’t conjure a new reality with his work. Instead, his work is almost a rigorous documentation of a certain period in his life. You’ve done some research into his ‘Navy’ works, could you tell us a bit more about what you have discovered during this research, and share with us some of your insight into these interesting pieces?
George Lawrence: You’re right Kate – it seems that Landry’s time in the Navy carved the memories that were the most vivid in his mind. He was able to put them down on paper many years later with amazing detail.
I am not an expert on the US Navy, but as I said earlier, I was able to obtain Landry’s naval service record from Freedom of Information Act documents. It shows that he entered the Navy at Birmingham, Alabama in December of 1945. He would have just turned 18 years old. World War II had just ended in August of that year. From that date, he served a total of 31 years, from 1945 to 1966 in active duty, and then from 1966 to 1976 in the Naval Reserve. It makes sense that the Navy experience would have been the central subject of his “memory drawings.”
Landry’s rank is listed as “MS1” which stands for “Mess Attendant Specialist Petty Officer First Class.” Among the decorations and awards listed in his record are the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Vietnam), The World War II Victory Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
Two of the drawings are self-portraits in Navy uniform. In both drawings Landry’s uniform shows the three red chevrons on the right arm that indicate ‘Petty Officer First Class.’ The ‘SP’ on the hat and left armband indicate that he was assigned to ‘Shore Patrol’ duty.
Image 6 – Clayton Landry, Self Portrait
In Image 6 Landry lists some of the duties associated with the Shore Patrol position. (note: Landry often uses the word “and” for “a”)
“Never strike and mate on his head.
Never sky larking
Always walk in pairs
No drinking alcohol
Never use hand cuffs on and mate
45 pistol std (starboard) side… nite stick on port side”
Image 7 – Clayton Landry, Self Portrait
Image 7 has some humorous and informative notes about his demanding job as a mess attendant, posed in a question-answer form.
“How many mates did you starve aboard ship during the war? Ans (answer) – None.
What was the largest amount you cook for? – 1,100
Small amount? –25
The medium amount? – 150”
These two drawings demonstrate the amount of information and historical detail that can be gleaned from many of Clayton Landry’s sketches. I’m sure that someone with a more thorough knowledge of the Navy would find details that I have missed.
From 1945 to 1966 Landry served on 11 different ships according to the notes in his drawings. I was able to identify eight of them from his naval record – four aircraft carriers: USS Philippine Sea, USS Leyte, USS Kearsarge and USS Sicily; one submarine tender, USS Gilmore; two guided missile cruisers, USS Providence and USS Topeka; and one destroyer tender, USS Frontier. His longest posting was with the USS Gilmore from 1950 to 1957.
Image 8 – Clayton Landry, USS Philippine Sea
Landry’s initial assignment in 1947 was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea whose first mission was as part of a major expedition to Antarctica called ‘Operation Highjump.’ Image 8 may be his drawing of that aircraft carrier because of the notes at the top of the drawing that read ‘Plank Owner’ and ‘Holy Stone Ship.’ The naval term ‘Plank Owner’ indicates that Landry was a member of the first crew aboard a newly commissioned ship (USS Philippine Sea was commissioned in 1946) and ‘Holy Stone Ship’ is a term for a ship with a wooden (teak) deck. Apparently most US Navy WWII aircraft carriers were still being built with wooden decks.
Other notes on the drawing include a listing of the oceans that he has crossed:
“Paciffic (sic) 5 years, Atlantic 2 years, Arctic, An Arctic (sic), Indian.”
And the destination of Operation Highjump: “South Pole Operations, Little America”
The circumstances surrounding “Operation Highjump” deserve a mention. One year after the end of the Second World War, thirteen Navy ships, multiple aircraft and 4,700 men took part in a US Navy expedition to Antarctica led by Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The official objectives of the mission included establishing an Antarctic research base, testing equipment in frigid conditions, and extending US sovereignty over the Antarctic continent. However, a quick internet search will reveal a wealth of websites that put forth theories of more sinister objectives, involving everything from hunting down a secret Nazi military base to UFO sightings and encounters with flying saucers!
Unfortunately, none of Landry’s drawings offer clues to these mysteries. However, one drawing (Image 9) illustrates an interesting initiation ceremony that took place on board when the USS Philippine Sea crossed the equator en route to Antarctica.
Image 9 – Clayton Landry, Crossing the Equator
Landry illustrates the ceremony with lots of explanatory notes in the margins. Sailors who had never crossed the equator were considered ‘Polywogs’ and had to undergo a day-long ordeal in order to become ‘Shell Backs.’ The Polywogs in the center, wearing only their underwear, are on an area of the deck bearing the note “oil on deck.” The Shell Backs, in uniform, form a whipping line on either side. A note next to one Shell Back reads “wipping (sic) bags stuffed with sand.”
Landry gives a description of the day’s events for the unfortunate Polywogs
(note: spelling is as written):
“Menu-none, No Eating, No Drinking, No Skylarking, No Smokeing, No Sick Bay – Starts at sun rises until sun sets – Do none of the things above – Uniform of today, drawers, bottoms –
No.1 Elevator departing to the wipping line – En route to the South Pole via Panama Canal locks.”
The text at the center of the drawing describes the expedition:
“Equator Lines, One half of the world to the bottom, Adm Byrd expedition en route to the South Pole now name Little America-History, On board U.S.S. Philippine Sea.” The tank filled with green water at the top right is labeled “Body Cooling Systems.”
From this dramatic entry into Navy life, Mr. Landry proceeded to serve on a succession of Navy ships. Some of them found their way into his drawings.
Image 10 – Clayton Landry, USS Gilmore Pick Up Pilot Down the Mississippi River
Image 10 has the title ‘USS Gilmore Pick Up Pilot Down the Mississippi River.’ The USS Gilmore was a Submarine Tender, a type of ship that supplies and supports submarines. Landry was a crewman on this ship for 7 years. Not surprisingly a number of the drawings illustrate this involvement with the submarine force. Titled ‘Home of Sub Force, Groton, Conn,’ image 11 shows the bay with what looks like two subs docked and one in a kind of dry-dock. Mr. Landry must have spent some time in the area because he also created drawings of two of the nearby landmarks.
Image 11 – Clayton Landry, Home of the Sub Force Groton Conn
I was able to identify Landry’s memory drawing of a lighthouse as the Avery Point Lighthouse (Image 12) because the drawing captures the characteristics well enough that recognized it in a photo that I found of the actual lighthouse, still standing on Avery Point in Groton (Image 13). The mysterious eclipsing sun that he added to the scene appears in several of his drawings. It was also easy to identify the Escape Training Tower at Groton from Landry’s simple sketch (Image 14). The tower was in use from 1930 to 1994 to train scuba divers to access or egress a submarine during special operations (Image 15). The tower has since been demolished.
Image 12 – Clayton Landry’s Lighthouse
Image 13 – Avery Point Lighthouse
Image 14 – Clayton Landry, Groton Conn
Image 15 – Escape Training Tower
Recently in my research I discovered that two of the ships, the USS Providence and the USS Topeka were equipped to fire surface-to-air missiles. Landry served on those ships during the Vietnam War, from 1959 until 1965. Looking back, I think this explains one of my in-person encounters with Mr. Landry.
Seeing him at work on the street one day, I noticed that he was intent on a drawing that a first glance seemed abstract – fiercely drawn with intense strokes – blendings of red, yellow and black. Looking closer I saw that the drawing was of a missile firing as if viewed from above. It was difficult to imagine how that point of view would have been possible. The following day I happened to see him again. He had produced another drawing that was almost identical to the first powerful image, as if he was still immersed in his memory of the event (Images 16 and 17).
Not long ago I came across the photo in image 18 of the firing of a Tomahawk missile from the deck of the USS Farragut. The similarities to Landry’s drawing are remarkable, including the circular red markings on the deck indicating the missile area.
Image 16 – Clayton Landry, Missile Firing 1
Image 17 – Clayton Landry, Missile Firing 2
Image 18 – Missile Firing
The next post will be published next month, focusing on Landry’s depictions of everyday life. To read the previous post in this series, please click here.
*We have used Clayton Landry as a pseudonym for privacy reasons