Gail Russell’s images capture an essence of the light and spirituality of the Southwest
hen Gail Russell was a small child, she said her father, Robert Isaac Russell, would stop at a fancy art supply store right near the spot where he got on
the commuter train to come back to their home in “Backwoods Greenwich,” Connecticut. He would come home with colorful pens, pencils and paints. “Still today;” she said, “there is this little voice inside my head giving me permission to buy art supplies, no matter what the cost Well, it is like my dad is still here buying the supplies for me, although he died in 1977.
Teles “Good Morning” Reyna became Gail Russell’s mentor and “dad.”
When she learned of her father’s passing, she was exploring and photographing Canyon de Chelley with Taos Pueblo elder, Telesfor Good Morning Reyna. “When we learned the news of my father’s passing, he took me for his daughter right then and there,” she said.
Russell said she knew she was an artist when she was six or seven years old because she was always drawing, painting and
printmaking. Her mother, Virginia Mayte Roe (who is “still with us and doing well at 91 “), was an excellent sculptor and had studied at the Chlcago Art Institute. Both encouraged the artistic talents they saw in their daughter. They were also appreciative of fine art and when her father traveled the world, he would come home with beautiful art objects that became part of their home.
When Russell attended Iroquois High School in East Aurora, NY, she said that her art teacher, Donald Lamp, and the art room helped to keep her sane. Later, in pursuit of a fine art career, she studied at several schools including the Pratt Institute in New York City. She also studied with the surrealist photographer, Jerry Uelslhan, for a short time. His influence on her work was manifested in many images based on her dreams.
Photo-artist Gail Russell with her parrot Maya.
While studying printmaking at Pratt, she was also a photographic representative to fashion photographer, Richard Davis. “There came one of those moments where I was faced with either buying a rather expensive etching press, or picking up the camera that Richard had given me as a gift,” Russell said. “I pursued my visual areas of interest with the aging 35-mm Nikkormat camera. I still get my painting energy out of using and painting oil colors on a photograph.”
At that time, she was raising two young boys and was juggling art and other work to keep bread on the table. In 1977, while on assignment for Quest Magazine, she came to Taos. While here, she ran into John Kimmey; who most locals know from his sustainable agriculture and heirloom seed projects in Arroyo Hondo. She said she was taking photographs for an article about “medicine people.”
Russell said that Kimmey told her the house above his was for sale and suggested that they go up the hill and take a look at it Russell replied, ‘I am not interested, the hill is too steep, and I am not planning to move anywhere.”
On the last day of her visit she said that he grabbed her hand and said, “we’re going up that hill to look at that house.” Although she mumbled and grumbled all the way; huffing and puffing up the hill with him, she said that the minute she stepped into the kitchen she knew it was her house. .
“Since I was a little girl,” Russell said, “I knew clearly that Connecticut was not my real home. I have felt a part of this landscape, sky; water, animals and family of people since that very first time I came here.” .
Russell and her work are both entwined with American Indian people, their culture and social concerns. This became part of her life early on, although not directly at first
“When I lived in Connecticut, with my two young boys, I lived in a little cottage bordering
on a 17-acre nature preserve,” she said.
“When (I was) in my mid-20s and early
30s, I spent alot of time in that forest,
and felt like the trees were teaching.