When Cherille Williams started college, she had every intention of being a physical therapist. But the closer she got to achieving her associate’s degree in PT, the more she realized the field she was following was not for her. At her brother’s urging, she started taking art classes at The University of New Mexico-Gallup campus and soon found her childhood passion for photography reawakened.

Cherille Williams
Cherille Williams

A member of the Navajo Nation, Williams graduated from UNM-Gallup in December 2019 with an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts degree and is now a junior at UNM College of Fine Arts, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Art Studio. Williams’ change of career plans is paying off for her and her talents are more widely recognized.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Joy of Giving Something, Inc. (JGS), Imagining American (IA) Williams will participate in a cohort of student artists for a community arts project, attending the IA National Gathering, and professional development opportunities affiliated with a national working group of engaged photographers and digital media makers. The goal of the IA/JGS Fellows Program is to elevate photography and digital media as a pathway for students to pursue their careers and make a difference in their communities.

“Just… wow! I am still in shock to receive this fantastic opportunity,” Williams marveled. “I look forward to learning as much as possible when working alongside the other fellowship members, mentors, and organizers, especially when developing and working on my community project.”

The initial purpose of the grant is to develop a community project. Williams plans to use the grant to develop a project with a local Boys & Girls Club.

The photographs she submitted for the IA/JGS Fellows Program featured her 96-year-old grandmother, Francine Williams.

“She was very supportive of being photographed and loved the idea of supporting my education because the image was used for one of my photo projects. Actually she was the one that handmade her own outfit and wanted to dress up for the photo shot. It was a fun experience we both had during the photo project and become a collaboration between the two of us,” Williams said, adding that her grandmother already had camera experience, having been in episodes of the popular TV shows Longmire and Chambers. “Other than that she’s just a humble lady that loves crocheting and watching football games.”

“I wanted to focus on the beauty of old age and embracing what comes along with it. I also wanted to focus on the stereotype Native Americans face when doing simple daily tasks like making fried bread,” she said of the portraits she submitted for the program. “It's going to sound cheesy, but I am inspired by my family and the outstanding professors I had that encouraged me to keep working towards making something of myself. My brother's the first to kick me in the butt, and we collaborate on ideas for different projects.”

“The kind of work I want to do is photographing our natural environment and how the world is becoming a plastic bottle. I guess my work right now is trying to find different narratives from the world around me and tell stories with images,” Williams observed.

“UNM has helped me in so many ways in thinking outside of the box and showing me how each class interconnects with one another from English, Anthropology to art. The professors at both the Gallup and main campus have challenged me in ways I never thought possible, from the in-class assignment to overwhelming projects. However, each professor has been more than helpful with having office hours and having resource materials,” Williams remarked.

Williams credited her brother Scott for encouraging her to apply for the JGS fellowship and helping her with her college education. Her grandmother is her role model and model inspiration for most of her photographs. She also thanked assistant professors Tracy Lassiter and Shirley Heying at UNM-Gallup for helping her, as well as mentor Shelby Roberts for helping with her photo projects and showing her the inner workings behind a camera. 

Follow Williams on Instagram.

“JGS is proud to continue our partnership with IA to bring together some of the most promising young artists in the country,” said Wayne Maugans, JGS Director of Education and Outreach, “Now more than ever, we need the voice and vision of new leaders who will engage their communities in a shared mission of truth-telling through the arts.”