I met Jill Giller by happenstance at a bake sale when I was visiting a friend in Denver, Colorado. When we started talking, we instantly discovered that we had a similar passion for ceramics. Remarkably, Giller has been collecting and representing contemporary Native American ceramics for over 25 years. She generously invited me to visit her unique, home-based gallery in Denver.
Growing a Personal Passion
Giller began her passion for ceramics while living on the Navajo reservation in 1971. At t he time, she was a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Her professor, anthropologist Oswald Werner, encouraged her to move to Arizona for her student-teaching experience, teaching English to Navajo first-language students at the Rough Rock Demonstration School. Her original intention was to stay for three months, but that soon turned into six, and began a lifelong immersion in the Pueblo/Navajo/Hopi Native American cultures. Giller was smitten with the beauty of the Southwest and the Native American ceramic arts, in particular. She had a dream to turn her personal passion into a business, representing the artists’ work to help further their careers.
She started her gallery, Native American Collections, in her home in 1994, representing a few artists and developing relationships with them as well as potential buyers. Giller credits Mark Swazo Hinds, a sculptor from the Tesuque Pueblo, for giving her the idea and encouragement to open the gallery in her home.
In the beginning, artists would show Giller various pieces during her visits to the Pueblos, she would choose the ones she liked, and would display and sell those to the community of buyers she built by word of mouth. As the artists gained confidence in her, they referred other artists and the individual collectors who followed their work to her. This allowed her to build her clientele fluidly and eventually become a trusted liaison between the artist and the collector. Giller now acquires work for the gallery through a dialog of exchanges of photos and emails as the artists create new pieces. Naturally, Giller still attends markets to meet with her artists and view work and is frequently asked to judge at competitions.
The artists she represents work in their studios full time and are considered innovators in their areas of expertise. They use traditional imagery, building methods, and firing techniques, and add their own personal style and subject matter. Artists set the retail price and all the work is purchased upfront by Giller, so she can give maximum benefit to the artists. She has developed deep working and personal relationships with each artist during this 25-year period, at times working directly with the artist to create a piece of art for a buyer. Her clientele continued to develop directly and informally over two decades through markets, the gallery website, Facebook, and referrals. Often, when she buys a piece from an artist, she already has a collector interested in that new pot.
Some of the first artists that Giller started representing were Harrison Begay, Jr., Jody Folwell, Tina Garcia, Steve Lucas, Jody Naranjo, and Russell Sanchez. The artists work in traditional processes: coil building, handbuilding, slipping, stone polishing, painting on oxides and colored slips, and firing outdoors. The forms are specific to each artist. The imagery carries the spirit, history of tradition, and techniques that come directly from their ancestors. Many are self taught and have developed their art in the contemporary culture.
The themes or symbols used are recreations or interpretations of old Pueblo designs and imagery. Images and symbols that are important to the artists include the Avanyu, a plumed and horned water serpent used in many of the Pueblos, which represents the importance of water; the serpent’s tongue is associated with lightning. Images of bears can represent inner strength. Prayer feathers, which carry the spirit of the ancestors and animals, are often depicted on pots, and other recognizable symbols represent rain, water, animals, corn, and various elements of nature. Russell Sanchez, from the San Ildefonso Pueblo, explains, “Tradition means moving forward and adding to it. You keep moving forward. If we stayed stagnant, we would no longer exist.”
The artists Giller represents are located in New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma. They are from the Acoma, Cochiti, Jemez, Laguna, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Zia, and Zuni Pueblos, and the Navajo, Hopi, and Wyandot nations. Some of the artists she currently represents are Harrison Begay, Jr., Autumn Borts, Hubert Candelario, Dolores Curran, Erik Fender, Glendora Fragua, Lisa Holt and Harlan Reano, Steve Lucas, Grace Medicine Flower, Les Namingha, Johnathan Naranjo, Jody Naranjo, Russell Sanchez, Richard Zane Smith, Linda Tafoya Sanchez, Jennifer Tafoya, and Nancy Youngblood.
The gallery is the first floor of Giller’s home. The house has very high ceilings, which allow for a lot of natural light. Some of the works are in glass cases, and all the work is distributed throughout the first floor. There is built-in shelving for display, as well as a lot of wall space for hanging works of art. This unique setting allows for buyers to envision how a piece will look in their home. While sitting in her kitchen, where there are small glass cases, I was particularly entranced by the work of Russell Sanchez (San Ildefonso Pueblo) and Jennifer Tafoya (Santa Clara Pueblo). Both artists use traditional imagery, but there are subtle differences in the balance of the forms and an artistic, interpretive quality of line and structure to the surface design on their works that convey a contemporary perspective.
Types of Traditional Pots
For people who are creating functional ware, there is a magical and marvelous quality of life when using handmade vessels. The processes, forms, designs, and finishing of Native American wares have historical significance that resonates in their current-day use.
Giller explains that she learned about seed pots, which so many of the potters still create. “These seed pots were designed to protect the seeds from insects and rodents for the next year’s planting. Since a wide-mouthed vessel like a traditional olla, or jar, could not keep animals and insects out, seed pots were created with only a tiny hole that would allow one seed to be dropped in at a time.”
While attending Feast Day celebrations, Giller regularly sees the utilization of bowls. They are used to make bread and stew bowls are used to serve and eat all the traditional chilis and stews. Giller has come to appreciate pottery from the various Pueblos, and the Hopi and Navajo villages. The Native Peoples create their pottery from traditions that have been passed down through the family for generations. The pottery was used for the tasks of daily life such as storing food and carrying water. Pueblo Peoples carried and cooked food in their ceramic jars. Certain pottery had ceremonial uses.
Giller is passionate about and committed to ensuring the artists receive full recognition and honor for their work. She is fully invested in her relationships, representing each of her artists to show and create work that has profoundly deep roots in Native American cultures. Giller feels honored that many of her artists have shared their rituals, celebrations, and pottery techniques with her. Her education and knowledge have earned her repeated invitations to be a juror for exhibitions held by museums and associations. She has judged at the Santa Fe Indian Market, the Heard Museum Indian Market, and at the Tesoro Foundation Indian Market.
For more information on Giller’s gallery, Native American Collections, and the artists she represents, visit https://nativepots.com and www.facebook.com/nativepots. The gallery is open by appointment for those interested in seeing the work in person.
All photos: Tom Tallant, www.tomtallant.com.
the author Lauren Kearns is a professional artist, teacher, and creator/ owner of International Artists Residency Exchange, an artist’s residency program, located in Saint-Raphaël, France. She has assisted students of all ages and abilities in ceramics and continues to be an active and avid promoter of the ceramic arts.