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Jessel Miller: An artist's guide to surviving fires, floods, terrorist attacks and pandemics

Jessel Miller: An artist's guide to surviving fires, floods, terrorist attacks and pandemics

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It takes sheer determination and devotion to your craft to make it as an artist. It requires waving your own flag higher than anyone else and believing in yourself above any critic’s voice.

This may be why Jessel Miller, owner and founder of The Jessel Gallery, has had the stuff to operate 35 years as a gallery owner in the Napa Valley. Miller’s years of survival as an artist led her to an explosion of creativity and inspiration during quarantine, culminating in her new collection of masterworks. Her unique voice and spirit came through over a series of interviews, both via telephone and at The Jessel Gallery in Napa Valley.

Layne Randolph: Do you recall what originally inspired you to become an artist and why you chose this career path?

Jessel Miller: I knew at 4 years old that art was my safe haven. I was exceedingly shy, and I refused to go to kindergarten until my mother told me, “You will color and draw there.” To this day, art is my place of peace and my refuge from the storms and emotional stress life sometimes puts in our paths. It is my glass of wine and my bowl of ice cream! It is as important as air and water to me. But art is also a business, one that often fails. They did not coin the term, “starving artist” for nothing.

LR: You have been operating your gallery for more than three decades, which is amazing, especially given that the Napa Valley draws tourists searching for wine experiences, not necessarily seeking artwork. It is a testament to your artist reputation and your business skills that you have remained viable for this long.

JM: When I first arrived in Napa in 1985 there were 16 galleries, and now there are three, proving just how hard it is to keep a gallery going here. I started the Napa Valley Gallery Association because I felt it was important for artists to support each other and build a brand around the amazingly talented artists, in a valley known mostly for wineries and wonderful vineyards. I opened The Jessel Gallery because I knew I could make a difference in this community.

Believe me, over the last 35 years, I have experienced firsthand the struggles and changes in the artistic community, topped with the many disasters in the Napa Valley. For me, the worst time was after 9/11. Everyone stopped flying and tourism ground to a halt. My gallery plummeted, essentially ending what was then a million-dollar business with eight employees, which had allowed me the time to do my own creative work. Within months, we were upside down financially and lost all our employees. I had to put my creative side on the back burner, and I learned to be a one-woman-band. I have continued to be one to this day.

This year has been especially hard. The pandemic has wrought havoc in the art gallery world, and in the world in general. Some businesses have been forced to close, in some cases by choice and in others by necessity. Instead of accepting defeat, I did what I have been doing all these years as an artist — I decided to take charge and strategize — which led me to take a whole new look at my gallery and to come up with ways to creatively survive these difficult situations.

LR: You mentioned helping other artists to thrive. For those struggling to keep afloat during this crazy year – and for local businesses doing the same — do you have any words of wisdom to share?

JM: I do. I have learned a few things during my 50 years in the art world, and maybe I can help someone searching for a way to keep things going.

Think outside the box

For me, this means reinventing myself and tuning in to the times, even at 70-plus years old. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that the world is now online. Over the years, I have gathered a base of clients and guests who have loyally supported the gallery and my work, and I have been reaching out to them now more than ever. My idea was that instead of them coming to the gallery, we would take the gallery to them.

We updated our social media presence, and for the first time in my entire career, I started my own website, JesselMiller.com, in addition to the gallery’s site, JesselGallery.com. This allows me to promote some of my individual projects as well as the gallery and the artists we represent. Through Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and email, we are all keeping connected in a new way.

Diversify

I want to share art with anyone who loves it, so I offer something at all price points, from a $5 greeting card to a $30,000 original painting. If a client likes a painting, but it’s outside their price range, they can buy a print and have it framed in-house, or they can buy a mask with the print on it, there are so many options.

I have written several children’s books focusing on positivity, and those books have moved to the forefront now, as well as an adult book I have written that is coming out soon. The books do not take away from my art, they supplement and showcase it. The children’s books are self-illustrated and my upcoming book, Soulful Voices, contains my artwork and tells the story of children across the globe saving the world, humankind, and animals from extinction.

Keep promoting

My gallery is out in the country, so, from the beginning, that was a challenge in building my reputation. People had to find me, and it took being consistent and current in my shows and promotions to draw folks out to my 100-year-old building. I have always supported my local clients with events on a regular basis, but since we stopped having large events in the gallery because of the pandemic, I now have virtual exhibits and online auctions to keep my clients up to date with what is going on in the gallery and with my new artwork.

Give the people what they want

The valley is the art and heart of the beauty people come to experience when they visit, so my most successful artists (Susan Hoehn, Marta Collings, Beverly Wilson, Daniel Mundy) paint images of the Napa Valley. When I first started my gallery, I had an avant-garde focus, because that is what I loved at the time. I quickly learned that the Napa clientele wanted vineyard scenes as memories of their time here, so I began painting abstract Napa Valley landscapes, and those paintings became our bread and butter.

Connect with local businesses

I connect with local businesses all the time because we are all in this together. Right now, I am letting hotels and B&Bs know they are appreciated by giving them copies of my books for their rooms or lobbies.

Look for the silver lining

There is a silver lining to everything. It was only after the pandemic hit that I allowed myself time to listen and to let my creativity flow through, and it felt like it was being channeled from something greater than myself. I have developed a completely different style over the last 12 months, and though my work was realistic, whimsical, and inventive before this transformation, this new path is the culmination of all my transformations over the past 50 years in the art world, and that’s why it’s called “Jesselism.”

Stay positive

My key to survival up to this point has been keeping a positive attitude. This is the time for all of us to put our thoughts toward the light in our lives. Because my gallery is on the edge of town, I had to evacuate in 2017 because of the fires.

Now I live with an underlying PTSD-type of sleeplessness. I live above my gallery, so on nights of great concern, I sleep with one eye open. But I keep opening the gallery doors each day and putting a smile on my face (even though no one can see it because of the mask), and I personally greet and welcome the few visitors I do get. This keeps my spirits up, and the energy I receive back makes every day worthwhile.

I keep this mantra in my mind: “Take time to touch each moment with love and ask, ‘What can I do today to make a better world?’” Love and friendship carry me through spiritually, and the kindness of my clients and friends have made a huge difference in my business.

The Jessel Gallery is at 1019 Atlas Peak Road, Napa, 707-257-2350, jesselgallery.com.

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The Jessel Gallery in Napa has reopened with a show titled “Shelter in Peace,” featuring works by Marta Collings, Daniel Mundy and Clark Mitchell.

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