Gill Patterson


profile by Janet Rauch


To visit Gill Patterson’s Cartwright Road home was to spend an hour or an evening in a magical, mysterious, exotic queendom. Every wall, every surface drew the eye—to paintings and sculptures, to carvings and pieces of jewelry displayed as art, to Mexican masks and Indian textiles, African stools and shards of ancient pottery.  Here an elaborately carved child’s bed from the island of Madura near Java; there a Maori bowl hewn from native Aotearoan wood; on the coffee table a fat, laughing Buddha in ivory; on the back of the chaise from which Gill reigned a shimmering length of Goanese silk. And above them all, shelves of art books gathered in her extensive travels, the better to understand the provenance and meaning of the treasures all around.

For Gill, it seems that collecting and surrounding herself with objects of great beauty were intellectual as well as emotional pursuits. Yes, there was certainly pride in having an eye for the unusual, the enchanting, even sometimes the brash or the startling. And there was joy in feathering her nest with objects that reminded her daily of the adventures of her life and her excursions into back-of-beyond spots around the world. But there was also a side of Gill that cherished the history and ethnography of her choices. Many of the objects were the works of artists who came by their talents intuitively; they were untrained in any classical sense—no ateliers or internships with established darlings of the art world or MFA degrees from respected institutions. Only the interested eye observing nature and applying sometimes primitive tools to available materials in search of some spiritual satisfaction.

“All of the things Gill collected had one thing in common,” according to Bob Fitzpatrick, “and that one thing is the spark of vitality. The strong colors, the striking shapes and expressions…..  She’d see something and know she wanted to see it again and again.” Fitzpatrick, the former Dean of the Columbia University School of the Arts and Director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, met Gill in the mid-1990s, shortly after he and his wife Sylvie bought a house on Shelter Island. The Fitzpatricks shared Gill’s passion for collecting; they became fast friends.

“There was no pretense in Gill, and no fear,” Fitzpatrick adds. “Whether she was bringing home bone bracelets and collars from Africa or a Balinese farm cart for her garden, Gill always responded to the thrill of discovery. That’s what made her juices flow and why her taste was so eclectic.”

Gill also enjoyed friends’ reactions to her latest acquisitions, often selected for their beauty, sometimes simply because they were provocative. It was impossible not to notice the anatomically extravagant African fertility figure that stood at the door between the living room and the dining area, or the sombrero-wearing Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton draped with beads that sat perpetually in a conversation area on the sun porch.

The smooth tawny marble of a sculpted human torso may have been chosen as a paean to the pleasures of hard-bodied youth and the hand-made “dragon’s eggs” displayed below the art books because they were the work of Gill’s daughter, Judith Shaw. But all of Gill’s collection spoke clearly of Gill herself—of her insatiable curiosity about human beings, of her intelligence and insight, of her fine eye and wit and exuberant appreciation of human accomplishment.

Gill started down the road to collecting at an early age. Her first treasures, says Judith, were three glass figurines Gill received as gifts as a young girl and treasured through much of her adult life. The figurines came from a gift shop kept by Gill’s Lithuanian-born grandmother, which may account for their place in her heart.

Later, in the mid-50s, Gill opened a shop of her own—Gill Wile Interiors in Mount Kisco, N.Y. The shop, says Judith, was famous for its lavishly decorated windows.  Gill has told people that she bought her first piece of Delft at an auction when she was 16.  But it was during the Mount Kisco years that the collection gathered momentum. Judith believes that in many ways “it was Gill’s most personal collection.”  Antiques dealers, most of them in New York City, scouted for high quality candlesticks, bowls, jars, steins and chargers at Gill’s behest over a period of several years.

Gill held onto her delftware for more than 50 years, displaying it in several homes before she and her second husband, Harry Patterson, retired full-time to Shelter Island. Here the collection took its place among her other treasures. The Scottish temple jar, flanked by the two tobacco jars, peeked out from the top of an armoire in her bedroom. The large 1690 bowl sat on her desk; she tossed bills and other bits of mail into it for safe-keeping. She served spicy biryani she’d learned to cook in India from the 1750 polychromed char dish.

But long before Gill and Harry made Shelter Island their permanent home, Gill’s collector’s eye had re-focused to the Pacific Rim. One contributing cause: Harry’s carpet business took them to India where, when business was done, they visited his guru, Sathya Sai Baba at Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, or took time to wind down in the former Portugese colony of Goa. Also Judith’s 1976 marriage to Australian Ron Shaw took her, Ron and their family first to Djakarta, Indonesia, then to Singapore. Gill and Harry visited each year on their way to or from India. In Djakarta, Judith, versed in several of the many local languages, arranged trips to some of the outer islands. There, Gill’s eye was drawn to primitive ceremonial masks, carved chests and, from one of the Sunda Islands near Borneo, pounded gold Sulawesi jewelry Gill didn’t wear but did occasionally display for others to admire. On another of their visits, Gill and Harry chartered a sailboat and headed toward islands well off the usual tourist routes. During a canoe expedition to shore, Gill was kidnapped, says Judith, and held for ransom. Somehow though, she convinced the pirates who held her to let her go. As Judith remembers it, Gill was never terribly specific about how, but is inclined to believe that Gill, despite her barely 5-foot stature, had sufficient force of personality to convince her captors that they were messing with the wrong dame.

Gill’s visits to Djakarta were the times that brought her and Judith the closest, Judith remembers. Judith’s knowledge of Indonesian culture, history and language fed right into Gill’s insatiable curiosity. That there were beautiful objects to bring home as testimony to the adventure cemented her enjoyment, and her appreciation of Judith’s efforts on her behalf.

Back on Shelter Island, all of her treasures were woven into the fabric of Gill and Harry’s life—as carefully placed outside as they were in, as befit the extensive gardens on which Gill prided herself.

Ganesha–the Hindu god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth–presided over the swimming pool. A Thai spirit house welcomed strollers from a perch above the May apples.  Grave markers from Kalimantan and a seesaw made with Rajastani camel saddles for seats drew the strollers on, all the way to the day lily patch where the painted Balinese farm wagon pointed the way back to the pool and Ganesha’s beneficent gaze.

Collecting requires that the collector look closely at life, pay attention to aesthetic, to history, to her own soul and its reverberations with what’s collected. It’s as  if the collector finds a way to appear outside herself, to garner attention by obliging others to look at and enjoy—or reject—what fascinated her. Ideally, by sharing the joy of discovery with others, the collector achieves commonality and connection, weaves a web of humanity into her own life.

Certainly Gill Patterson enjoyed watching visitors survey her treasures. Indeed, she  paid great attention to how and where each object was placed, to how it was framed by a window or positioned to startle the eye. Always, she added to her stores at least in part with the hope of sharing the thrill she felt on seeing whatever it was that had caught her attention during her latest trip. Yet somehow for Gill all the disparate parts of the collection from the first Delft to the final Mexican terra cottas resolved into a whole—like voices in a choir—to form a single joyful song of herself.

Gill’s collection was dispersed in 2006 when she relocated to Peconic Landing. Only the delftware remains, a generous gift to the Shelter Island Historical Society and a luminous reminder of the roads—many of them less–travelled—that led her around the world in search of treasures and pleasures she could share with all who ventured into her magical queendom.

Janet Roach, a Shelter Islander since 1979, has won 5 Emmys for her television work, the British Academy Award, an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, “Prizzi’s Honor,” and the Citation of Excellence from the White House Council on Working Women, among other honors. 
Gill Patterson’s Delftware Collection is currently on exhibit at the Shelter Island Historical Society