Being in the thick of things ancient, cultural and brimming with nature's spirit is why Taos artist Gail Russell ultimately chose photography as her medium, over her original path of etching and screen printing.
"The camera gave me an excuse to be where I wanted to be," she admitted wryly last week. "I was interested in ancient sites and antiquities - in Native and political realities. It was a way to contribute to what's going on."
Her newest exhibit is "Tribal Heart: Images of Native Life and Culture, Photographs by Gail Russell." It opens with a reception Saturday (Sept. 29), 3-7 p.m., at her new gallery, located in North Star Plaza, 65 State Road 522, Suite A4 in El Prado.
"Tribal Heart" is the second in a thematic series of four photographic shows. She just took down the first show, "Green Universe: The Beauty and Mystery of Plant Life." After "Tribal Heart" she will present "Temples and Antiquities," and then "Floating World." She notes that the series "is progressive and aims to open up small windows into other worlds."
According to her press release, the work in "Tribal Heart" reflects "her long association and engagement with Native elders and embodies her reverence for the natural world."
Russell writes that she has found inspiration "from the high mesas of Arizona's Hopi Land to the mysterious Black Hills of South Dakota," and has discovered "something very special about traditional, authentic life and spirit … today, as for all time, there are two worlds: The world of the prevailing powers, and the world of nature and the spirit."
She notes how moved she has been by the efforts of indigenous people and activists from all over the world in their struggle to prevent gas and oil pipelines from encroaching on sacred lands. "I think of the beauty and sacrifice at Standing Rock, and my heart is lifted by the power and strength of the people."
Throughout much of her life, Russell has supported and participated in Native causes. In 1978 she walked from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., photographing for Newsweek Magazine the American Indians and other activists walking the "Longest Walk" from California to D.C.
"We are all Protectors," she said in the press release. "I hope the 'Tribal Heart' pictures speak good thoughts."
In 1987 she co-founded "Adopt-A-Grandparent" program with Lakota Sioux Elder Nellie Red Owl and remained on the board for 17 years, helping elders and families in need on the Pine Ridge Reservation and some Taos Pueblo elders as well.
"I'm so pleased with this space," she said with a sweeping arc of the walls still bright with the "Green Universe" show's exquisite plant imagery. "The original purpose of this space was, and is, because I'm organizing what I've been creating since 1968, to house over 40 years of my work. And that includes several monographs - books that are theme-based."
Prior to creating her new El Prado gallery, she had been at Las Comadres Gallery in the John Dunn Shops for over 10 years as well as showing from her home-studio, Mountain Light Gallery in Arroyo Hondo since 1983, one of the first B&Bs in Taos County.
The grand opening for the El Prado gallery was April 21, where she exhibited prints and debuted her new product, SallyGators. Both the fine photography and SallyGators are in the 'Tribal Heart" exhibition spotlight.
SallyGators, are warm, protective leg warmers for the fall and winter season and this will be SallyGators' first season since they only hit the ether and her studio shelves back in April.
"Inspired by traditional Native American women's 'leggings,' SallyGators are fashionable leg garments for women," her website states. "Button them up or pull them on like socks … they are a good look with skirts and tights as well."
SallyGators are printed, 100-percent cotton with fleece and cotton-quilted linings. Sustainability is a major focus.
Besides the tribal imagery exhibit and SallyGators, she is celebrating the release of her new website. Russell said she inadvertently lost her web presence for about five years while she was caretaking her elderly mother.
In addition to the images of the show, prints and notecards will be available and SallyGators will be on display.
A portion of earnings go to nonprofit programs: The Farm House School Lunch Program in Taos and the The Adopt a Native Elder Program in Park City, Utah.
The show will remain up through the holiday season. To see work after the opening reception, she is only five minutes away from the studio. She can be reached at home (575) 776-8474 or the studio, (575) 770-1507.