Inland Waterways: The Highways of Our Heritage—An Interview with Gary Lucy

Interview conducted by the editors of Big Muddy

Raised in Caruthersville, Missouri, Gary Lucy is one of the premier inland waterways artists in the country. Although his high‑school counselor advised him not to try to go to college, he attended despite that, and turned a roundabout pathway to art major into a career that translates history into magnificent, compelling, and detailed paintings.

Art wasn’t his first choice in college. In 1967, Gary thought that computer programming would make him a decent living. Advice that “computers will never work” turned Gary instead toward a career in accounting as a CPA. A friend of his wanted to take a drawing class, and Gary decided to enroll with him. He thought that drawing should be an easy A, because he felt that “anyone can draw.” He changed his major in his second year and graduated with honors in Art Education.

Since then, Gary has received numerous awards, grants, and commissions for his work. He was given the Alumni Merit Award in 1993 by Southeast Missouri State University. In 2004, in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, Gary’s work will be further honored in the Old Courthouse in St. Louis with a return exhibit entitled “Inland Waterways: The Highways of Our Heritage.”

He and his wife Sandy own a gallery, studio, and home in a beautifully restored building that overlooks the Missouri River in Washington, Missouri. His paintings may be viewed at the gallery or at his website:

Editors: What prompted your work on Lewis and Clark’s expedition?

GL: My work with Lewis and Clark is actually a by‑product of my research and work dealing with the Inland Waterways. If you study the Inland Waterways as long as I have, you inevitably have to study Lewis and Clark—their relationship to our rivers and to the Missouri River in particular.

I’ve had many interesting discoveries come up in my research. For example, do you know what vexology is? Vexology is the study of flags. I’ve come up with a new interpretation of Lewis and Clark’s flag that has never been done before. While historians usually interpret within either an oral or a text format, in artwork I’m in a visual format. I’ve been working with the Lewis and Clark flag that would have been flown from the keelboat. Through many experts in the field of vexology, information from others interested in the study of Lewis and Clark, and from the journals of Lewis and Clark, I’ve formulated an image of a large pennant‑style flag that I feel that their party would have flown as an expedition flag made specifically for their journey.

In 1986 I began a series of work entitled “Inland Waterways: The Highways of Our Heritage.” The work is a sequence of paintings that tells the story of how the inland waterways of America built this country as we know it. The paintings aren’t just pictures of steamboats or flatboats or whatever, but I’ve researched back to Cahokia 1150 A.D. and completed a painting entitled “The Departure of Traders from Cahokia, 1150 A.D.”

Do you know why Cahokia is where it is? It’s because of the rivers. Cahokia was a city of around 20,000 to 30,000 people and was at the center of a gigantic trading hub for North America. In the summer months Cahokia’s population would have increased substantially with traders who would have come in by way of the rivers from hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand miles outside the city.

Eds: I’ve always argued that Native Americans lived where they did for the same reasons we live where we do today. Primarily, it’s transportation.

GL: But they didn’t live in flood plains because they were smarter. They built up out of it.

Eds: That’s right. It’s only the modem generation that lives down in the flood plain. Look at Baton Rouge, for example.

GL: If you want to find Indian artifacts, you know they’re around the rivers, but they’re not really around the rivers themselves. They’re in the streams because those were their harbors. There’s one located here near Washington.

Eds: It’s across the river over there. Lewis and Clark talk about the settlement that’s there.

GL: Right. I went over there. I got some maps down here that go back to 1817, and what I’ve done is, I’ve overlaid the old river to the new river. That old river runs right up close to those cliffs where that creek comes through. I went over there and walked around. By following the general topography of a given area, you can get a feel for the activity of previous inhabitants. Also, a friend of mine has an airplane; he took me up, and boy you can see where that old river was because the ground changes color literally where the old rivers were, you know. I’m looking at that, then I say, “If there was not an Indian settlement on that ridge, I would be impressed.” So, that’s part of this history thing. I go out and try to track details down.

(Indicates a painting in‑process) This is a little piece that I’m doing. This is Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek May 31, 1805. I’ve been there—beautiful, beautiful location. I’m using this as an opportunity to try to hone in on Clark a bit as a personality and talk visually here about how he would probably separate himself from the others to write his journals. We know he did a lot of writing in his journals up in the white cliffs of Montana. He had to have a quiet space. When I’ve been out on research with groups I always need to separate myself when I’m writing for the Internet or anything like that. I’m trying to center on him and put the men in the background making camp for the evening and so forth. He’s probably still got daylight, working outside there, because they’ve gotten rid of the keelboat at that time, and they can’t work in the cabin area.

Eds: I tell students that their own journal is one of the most important things that they’ll do in their college careers because it is a history of themselves and their environment.

GL: Yes, it is. Writing doesn’t come easy for me, however. Last night I was up until close to midnight writing for my webpage of my findings of Lewis and Clark, detailing my future work. I went through the description of each man, explained who they were and what they were doing and what their job was according to my research. I did that last night, and finally my words all ran together. I can’t spell, never could spell. Thank God for these computers. If you’re going to function in the real world, you need to learn the real world and how to communicate with the world. I know the words, I know basically how to put them together, but boy do I need a proofreader.

Eds: Your details in your paintings are meticulous. Which seems to take most of your time: the painting or the historical research?

GL: You know, art tends to be a rather secondary thing. Art is just the easy part. Painting the pictures is a piece of cake. It’s getting together what you’re going to paint that’s time‑consuming. I can paint anything if I can see it. The problem of it is that I can’t see much of the past, so I have to figure out a way to see. You saw all of those models in the other room. There’s a model over there of a keelboat. I had them built so that I can actually see the boats.

My good model builder died, Blair Chicoine from Sioux City, Iowa, bless his heart, died at 48- years-old of cancer, and he made all these models. That model he built over there is the best model of a keelboat you will ever see in your life, better than anything I’ve ever seen in the Smithsonian. And you’ll notice there’s clothing all over the place. It’s all basically linen reproduction, uniforms for the Lewis and Clark painting. I’m having some uniform coats—eight uniform coats—made now over in Nebraska.

Eds: That’s amazing work, putting it all together like that.

GL: It’s like a puzzle—a very big puzzle . . .

Eds: And it’s also a translation from print records to an object; you actually go through a 3‑D stage to be able put it on canvas.

GL: And it’s a lot of work. Basically, I am pulling together a scene that’s in my mind. And what is art about? Interpretation and what’s in your mind.

I was asked to address the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia and chose the topic of historical interpretation. “Historic interpretation is not new” I said. “Let me give you an example.” I put a slide up of “The Last Supper.” That’s historic interpretation, fifteen hundred years after the fact.

Eds: So from what you’ve told us, the hardest part is in the detail gathering, the research. You can’t go out and take a picture of these subjects that you paint. It seems to me that much of the brilliance of your art lies in the way that you put all of these details together. Such as all of the wood‑splinters details in that keelboat, a very, very specific, detail‑oriented kind of work. What was your training?

GL: I went to a career day in Kennett, picked up a brochure of Southeast Missouri State University, and that’s where I decided to go to school. When I was there in 1967, classes were $90 a semester.

I eventually became an art major, and I took classes from Jake Wells, my savior over there. When I got the Alumni Award in 1993, he sent me a note, although he was very ill at that time. Jake Wells took the time to write me a note and say, I got an invitation to the get together, but I can’t make it. I’m not in good shape, but best wishes, have a good life and so forth. Jake was an honest, decent man. He used to sit and paint for me, his only audience. Either I was the only one who would sit there long enough to watch it or else he really wanted me to know it. One of the two.

Eds: How did you know you were going in the right direction when you decided to become an artist full‑time? I mean, full‑time artist is not your really steady money, usually.

GL: My junior year there was an artist in Cape, Jim Garner, a sculptor. Our art club went to his studio, which was back on an alley. I was planning at that time to teach. I didn’t have any alternative. All the artists I knew were dead, and they were in books. So, we went to this guy’s place and he had a studio and he had a Corvette and I asked, You do this for a living? Yeah. Sell it? Yeah. Is that your car? Yeah. You have a Corvette? I’m thinking, Hey, I could do that, for goodness sake. So, I was going to be an artist. But you know, that’s one of the worst nightmares parents can have, when their child says, “Well, Mom, I wanna be an artist.” Mine responded, “Get a real job. Teach for a year. See if you like it. Try it.” So, I taught. Seventy‑two hundred dollars a year, my first contract. I taught elementary art, grades one through six. Six hundred and thirty kids, and I loved ’em. We had a great time.

But by two or three weeks into the whole thing, I realized I didn’t really want to do this the rest of my life. I quit my teaching job after one year; that was thirty years ago in 1971. I went from 7,200 dollars a year down to nothing. As a matter of fact, I went in the hole. My wife taught and we only paid seventy dollars a month for a place to live and no car payments or anything like that. I started painting wildlife. I had an interest in the environment, anyway, going back from college, so I started painting wildlife, and I did that for fourteen years. I did wildlife murals. If you go to the website and you go to the biography section, you’ll see the murals that I did. I did a mural down in West Plains, and I did a mural here in town.

A gentleman by the name of Lyle Woodcock was working with Missouri Life magazine at that time. They were doing a section on Missouri artists and history, predominantly with Charlie Russell and Thomas Hart Benton. Lyle came to my house at that time. He came by to see me because I was doing murals; he was working with Benton’s murals. As time passed, we became very good friends. I later learned that Lyle and Thomas Hart Benton were very good friends; in fact, Lyle advised Benton on many affairs concerning art and business. I’d been doing wildlife art for fourteen years, and I said to him, “Lyle, this wildlife is not gonna cut it it. The field is too crowded. I’m not making any headway here. What do you think?” Now, Lyle’s not the kind of guy to give you an A to Z formula. He’ll point you in a direction, and he’s a great teacher. He said, “Gary, no artist has ever accomplished what you want to accomplish unless they work with the human figure in some capacity.” That’s it. That’s all the advice he gave me. I’m still just so in awe of Lyle. Lyle is the fellow you’ve met in your lifetime who can sit at the table across from you and he can talk to you in as few words as possible and you hang on every word. You walk away from him with a feeling of enlightenment. He was just a marvelous individual when it comes to really cutting to the chase.

Lyle went to a seminar once where they were all sitting around trying to analyze why Charles Russell used magenta when painting his skies. They’re saying things like, he knew of the upheaval of the west and the upheaval of the people, and the loss of the American Indian, and the color symbolized this and it symbolized that. They got to Lyle and they asked, “Mr. Woodcock, what is your opinion?” Lyle says, “I don’t know. I think he just liked that color.” That is the truth.

So I thought about Lyle’s advice, and I looked out at the river from my studio. What if I would attempt to tell the story of that river, the water, the boats, and the people—studies of the “human figure” and the telling of their adventures dealing with the rivers. I said, “Okay, let’s go to the library and look.” I came back with three, four, five books and realized that I had a lifetime’s worth of work here. Do you realize that every great city in the world is either built on a river, a lake, or an ocean? That’s because prior to the Civil War our whole society, all civilization, was based on maritime heritage. That was the best way you could go long distance to one place from another. You could take a keelboat and load it down with seventy tons, and twenty‑four men could take off with it upstream. Seventy tons—a wagon in that period of time which would hold fifteen hundred pounds was a big wagon, big wheels, four oxen. Seventy tons, you divide that among how many wagons you’re going to need, how many oxen you’re going to need, how many men to drive it, how much food there will be to take care of it, mechanical break downs, and the fact that there are no roads. There are no good roads prior to the Civil War.

You take all of the oxen and wag­ons and moving around, and now you throw in a three or four inch rain and a creek. You’ve got yourself a genuine mess. That is why the rivers and the maritime heritage are so important. It was a natural highway system. Inland waterways are the highways of our heritage.

Eds: How has library research served as a component of your work?

GL: When you study art and history, you really get down in the deep dark interesting recesses of the research. Have you been to the Mercantile Library since they moved into the university system? [University of Missouri‑St. Louis] It’s fascinating to go down there—they have old, old books, and excellent collections and records. Mercantile Library is really one of the finest in the country.

The library is a mostly underused tool for many artists. Here’s an example. At East Central College, they have really a nice library. Between 1982 and 1984 I checked out almost every art book they had. In 1998, I was speaking there and attending live drawing classes with the students as kind of a give‑back thing. I drew with them and talked with them, and I’m thinking, there was a technique in one of these books I read a long time ago. I went back to find the book, I pulled this great technique book off the shelf, and I went to check it out. In 1998. And you know who the last person was who checked that book out? Me, in 1984. That book had stayed on that shelf for fourteen years. Yet it was an excellent book.

I was a little late for the drawing session when they went upstairs. I walked into class and I told the model, “Just relax for a minute. I have something to say.” I usually don’t do that in Chuck’s class, but I had a point to make, and Chuck looks at me like—well, say it. And I said, “You see this book? You students have ignored it for a decade and a half. You people should be ashamed of yourselves for not doing your research.” And you know, those students started checking those books out. They’d have three or four, and you’d see them over in the corner, looking through them, then pretty soon they’d be off painting. The instructor told me later on, that was probably the best thing I could have done. To show them that the research comes before the painting.

© Southeast Missouri State University Press