Former art teachers give extensive Southwestern pottery collection to UW-Eau Claire Foundation

Forty-five years ago, River Falls native Al Miller saw a video about renowned artist Maria Martinez and her iconic pottery. The beauty of the pottery and how Martinez created it awakened something in him that translated into a lifelong passion for collecting Southwestern pottery.

His first purchase was a small ashtray, which now is one piece in an extensive collection of Southwestern pottery that he and his partner, UW-Eau Claire alumnus Richard LaBelle, are donating to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Foundation.

A fitting legacy

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Al Miller, left, and Richard LaBelle are photographed near a portion of their extensive Southwestern pottery collection on display in UW-Eau Claire's Davies Center.

“Friends would visit our home, see the extent of our collection and invariably ask what we were going to do with it,” Miller said. “We did not want the collection to be split up, and auctioning it off for the money had no appeal. We knew the entire collection needed to be kept together and used for teaching and learning. We were aware of UW-Eau Claire’s various collections, so we decided to donate it to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.”

The LaBelle Miller Southwest Pottery Collection, which has approximately 400 pieces, will be held in the UW-Eau Claire McIntyre Library’s Special Collections and Archives department, displayed on campus, and used as an invaluable teaching resource — a fitting legacy for two former art teachers.  

“We spent our careers teaching,” LaBelle said. “The most exciting aspect of this gift is that our collection will become a unique teaching resource. I am anxious to see what kind of projects students and faculty will develop because of studying our collection. This is a humbling legacy for us.” 

A portion of the LaBelle Miller Southwest Pottery Collection will be unveiled at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 25 in the Alumni Room of UW-Eau Claire’s Davies Center. Miller and LaBelle will attend to discuss their collection and gift. (During the celebration, the university also will honor Greg Kocken, head of special collections, university archives and records management, and UW-Eau Claire history professors Robert Gough and James Oberly, who are recipients of awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

The making of a collection

LaBelle, a 1968 UW-Eau Claire art education graduate, taught for 30 years in Cornell, while Miller, a 1972 UW-River Falls art education graduate, taught for 35 years in Bruce. During summer breaks and after retiring, they combined their knowledge of fine art with a love for the Southwest and Miller’s passion for the region's pottery. For nearly 30 years, they would go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, returning with pieces of pottery that appealed to their eye for beauty and spoke to them — often stemming from their personal relationships with the artists.

While teaching and after retiring, Miller and LaBelle operated Norte Antiques, an antique, decorating and floral business in Bruce. In an interesting convolution of trade, they would acquire Southwestern baskets, rugs, jewelry and, of course, pottery that people had purchased and brought back to the Midwest. LaBelle and Miller would buy these items from collectors and return to Santa Fe to resell them to galleries. Their return to Wisconsin usually included bringing new pottery acquisitions they found in New Mexico to add to their impressive collection. Five years ago, they decided it was time to move themselves and the collection to Santa Fe. The collection, which traces its beginnings to Wisconsin, is now returning.

“We never started collecting with a specific goal in mind to have certain items or artists,” Miller said. “We just wanted pieces that spoke to us. Our first foray was with Acoma pottery, and then we became passionate about the Hopi pottery. Eventually, we felt we needed to have items representing all of the pueblos. What mainly drove our collecting was that we often would meet the artists, be invited into their homes to see their work, and become friends with them and their extended families.”

“Once you get to know the artists you realize they have compelling and sometimes heart-wrenching stories,” added LaBelle. “Often we would buy more pottery than we needed from one artist, but we realized that our purchases were helping support the artist and his or her family. It was then that we knew that what we were doing was more than just building a collection.”

Miller and LaBelle’s collecting philosophy focused more on specific artists they liked rather than on acquiring the most expensive pieces. They usually would meet the artists to learn more about them, which added a story about most of the pieces in their collection. Their diligence resulted in friendships with many of the pottery artists; once they acquired one piece by an artist, they usually added more. The duo also have an eye for emerging pottery artists and have supported their growth and popularity by purchasing pieces well before mainstream collectors know of them.

Treasured art becomes educational resource

Because of the first-name basis Miller and LaBelle have with the creators of many of the pieces in their collection, it became personal to them. They knew they did not want the collection to be split up or sold.

The LaBelle Miller Southwest Pottery Collection will be displayed initially in UW-Eau Claire’s Davies Center. A larger display will be featured at a new University Welcome Center scheduled to open in 2020. Items not on display will held in the university archives for curation and preservation. They also will be made available for study and research. Because the collection is so extensive, it will be rotated regularly to display new pieces and new themes.

 “We are thrilled with the opportunity to acquire this extensive and impressive collection of Southwestern pottery,” said Kocken of UW-Eau Claire’s Special Collections and Archives department. “The depth and breadth of the collection is amazing — there certainly is not anything like it in the Midwest. Because it includes pieces from many of the Pueblos and other nations in the Southwest known for pottery making, this collection will be a tremendous educational resource for many areas of the university. Certainly, the American Indian studies, public history and art programs are a few of the academic programs that will find many avenues for study and research. I also can envision a variety of special displays focusing on different themes and topics.”

Top photo caption: Greg Kocken, UW-Eau Claire's head of special collections, university archives and records management, prepares pieces of the LaBelle Miller Southwest Pottery Collection for display in Davies Center.