Art exists in everything we see. Whether you’re looking at a car, a lamp, a dress or a fishing boat, an artist dreamed it up and designed it. Some works of art tell a story or are created to adorn the walls of our home. Other times, art is functional, like a gorgeous coffee table or chair. Even the natural life around us, like a spider spinning its web and a bird building a nest, participates in the creation of art.
Art has existed here on Long Island for thousands of years, created and practiced by the many local communities that call this island home. Our people have created beautiful beads from various shells found along our shores, such as wampum created from quahog clams. At other times, dyes made from berries were used to dye clothes, and beautiful baskets were woven from wood and grasses for fishing and other purposes.
One of Long Island’s beautiful art styles comes in the form of duck decoys. The late Shinnecock Chief Eugene Cuffee and Charles C. Bunn, both born in 1860, were two of the most famous decoy carvers. Typically using cedar, tupelo, or high-density cork, Cuffee and Bunn masterfully design and carve beautiful waterfowl decoys to be used for hunting and as home art installations. If you are lucky enough to own one of these pieces of history, you own a priceless piece of art.
A descendant of both Cuffy and Bunn, Gloria Smith also found art held a special place in her heart. Smith, who will turn 90 this year and lives on the Shinnecock Reservation, describes herself as born with art. The self-taught artist worked until she was 87 years old. When you talk to Smith, you can feel the creativity oozing from her pores.
After she retired, she had so much creative energy to share that she asked her sons to build an art studio in her backyard. Over the past few years, Smith has created over 40 paintings in this studio. Working primarily with acrylic on canvas, she explores both traditional indigenous themes and abstract designs in her art.
She often uses vibrant colors and dramatic lines to express herself. As I admired her work, I noticed that there was very little repetition of style, with each piece telling its own unique story. Smith says she finds painting relaxing and therapeutic, and her studio offers moments of peace.
The Smith children are also blessed with the family artist gene. In particular, Lyle Smith has carried on the family tradition of both painting and decoy carving. Lyle was born in Southampton and lived all his life on the Shinnecock Reservation.
A graduate of Southampton High School and Nassau Community College, he joined the Marine Corps and later became a police officer. A few years ago, he had a bad motorcycle accident while on duty as a police officer. As he recovers from his injuries, he begins to study the decoy styles of his ancestors and begins to enter the craft himself.
Lyle’s grandfather and father were Shinnecock hunting guides, and his uncle, Norman, was also a traditional carver. With such a rich family history of wood carving, Lyle’s passion and skill as a duck carver is only natural. His meticulous attention to detail is evident in every decoy he carves and paints. He does so in the traditional Shinnecock way, honoring those who came before him and who created the art form.
Along with fishing, ranching, shellfishing, and big game hunting, bird hunting has helped sustain the Shinnecock people for hundreds of years. Lures, while beautiful, have immense cultural significance. Lyle helps preserve this essence of Shinnecock culture and shares it with younger bird hunters in the Shinnecock Nation.
Gloria and Lyle had the honor and pleasure of performing together at Southampton Arts Centre. Sharing these moments tells the true story of art and creativity passed down from generation to generation in the Shinnecock community.
Christian Weaver, President of Wampum Group, has been in the development and strategic planning industry for nearly 20 years. Weaver is passionate about uplifting communities and has dedicated his career to making a positive impact on the lives of others.
Voices of Shinnecock is a monthly column where citizens of the Shinnecock Nation share stories and opinions and discuss the projects and campaigns they are working on to give readers an inside look at their amazing community.