Low key, high impact: The collection of Tim and Pam Hill
Photography by Jesse Hill | August 2009 |
From one point of view, the story of Pam and Tim Hill is a by-the-book American success story. From another, it is a highly individual account of a quest for identity in the field of American art and antiques—a forty-year chronicle of a complex and evolving art world seen through the lens of one couple’s unique vision. Pam and Tim Hill run a successful art gallery in Birmingham, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit. They are acknowledged experts on both American folk art and contemporary American painting and sculpture. They are also notable for having assembled a formidable private collection of American folk art walking sticks.
The Hills were both born in the upper Midwest. They met as students at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan during the early 1960s. Pam studied art and English; Tim pursued history as a major. Both graduated with certification as teachers and began their life together teaching in high schools in and around Detroit. Like others in their generation, they engaged the turbulent decade of the 1960s with a certain ambivalence. Their social values and political leanings inclined them to the activism of their era. In their classrooms they helped a new generation prepare for life in a technological, post-modern world. Their love of history, their independent temperaments and their affection for antiques, however, inclined them to eschew an urban lifestyle. In Pam’s words, they sought a way to “live outside the mainstream.”
The Hills were both born in the Upper Midwest. They met as students at Michigan State University in East Lansing during the early 1960s. Pam studied art and English; Tim pursued history as a major. Both graduated with certification as teachers, and they began their life together teaching in high schools in and around Detroit. Like others of their generation, they engaged the turbulent decade of the 1960s with a certain ambivalence. Their social values and political leanings inclined them to the activism of their era. In their classrooms they helped a new generation prepare for life in a technological, post-modern world. Their love of history, their independent temperaments, and their affection for antiques, however, inclined them to eschew an urban lifestyle. In Pam’s words, they sought a way to “live outside the mainstream.”
On a weekend foray to a country auction, the Hills stumbled across a fully appointed roadside antiques shop that was for sale. The deal included the building, its contents, and (most important) a little book listing all of the clients, auctions, and pickers known to the shop’s original owner. The Hills became proprietors. As Tim remembers, “it was perfect. We had two things going for us. We didn’t know anything about business and we didn’t know anything about antiques.”
The Hills opened Patriot Antiques in 1968 in Novi, Michigan (a town so named because it was the “No. VI” stop on the nineteenth-century railway running northwest out of Detroit). Initially, Patriot offered a general line ranging from country furniture and decorated stoneware to quilts and weather vanes. By reading books on antiques and folk art, the couple broadened their knowledge and their taste. Both remember that Albert Sack’s book Fine Points of Furniture (1950) had a major impact on them. It taught them to view everything they bought in terms of good, better, and best. They also sought out established dealers from their locale and beyond as mentors and teachers. Prominent among these were Maze and David Pottinger in Michigan, Clark Garrett and Bill Samaha in Ohio, and Peter Tillou in Connecticut. They were all happy to share their expertise, Pam recalls, “if they thought you were interested.” Above all, the Hills learned to trust their own eyes.
The steep learning curve confronting the fledgling dealers was both challenging and exhilarating. Sales at Patriot, however, were meager. Pam briefly left teaching to run the shop but returned to the classroom within a year. Working with the grade school children in her art room, she describes witnessing unfettered visual creativity. Over time this experience led her to conclude that the impulse behind great art was the same across genres and periods. For his part Tim channeled his competitiveness into the buying and selling of Americana. He also began to develop a view of art similar to Pam’s as he traveled the Upper Midwest to bid at auctions and to introduce himself to a widening circle of pickers, dealers, and collectors. Like Pam he sensed the creative connection uniting disparate objects. In part it was this understanding of the creative impulse that led the Hills to their passion for American folk art.
The Patriot shop closed in 1973, but the Hills moved forward. Breaking with their careers as teachers, and having acquired a farm in rural Michigan, they opened a new business selling folk art. Within a few years they had moved an early barn from a neighboring farm onto their land and had remodeled it into a contemporary style gallery. During this period Pam and Tim bought their first folk art walking stick—a piece that they still own (No. 9). “The cane,” as Tim describes it, “consists of a large closed fist at the top. Wrapping around it is a single snake that suddenly, as it gets to the top, divides itself into two heads. The twin-headed snake on this cane was so perfect. I thought ‘this is a great object.’”
The discovery of that first cane proved auspicious. “As we traveled around we started seeing other canes,” Tim remembers, “and each time we would find one, we would be amazed at the variety and the possibilities. People weren’t really valuing them. Wherever we went we seemed to locate them. Pennsylvania had some, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois. Pretty soon if you came into this house there were ten or twelve walking sticks hanging over the sofa. That wall became the ‘critical wall.’ As canes came in, certain ones would go on the wall and others would go off. The constant critical analysis of them, and the discussions about what was going on within a given cane became a daily event.”
The lessons from the “critical wall” had an immediate impact on the way the Hills did business. Walking sticks provided them with insights into folk art (particularly with respect to the sculpture and furniture that had become their specialty) and forced them to study and evaluate everything they offered with the same rigor. “Tim and I discuss every single thing that we get,” Pam says. “Most of the time we are on the same page because we do have a similar sensibility. We’ve always been highly selective.”
From the mid-1970s on, the story of the Hills’ business is one in which issues relating to what is on the margins and what is at the center of the field are continually in play. The decision to base a serious folk art gallery in a relatively provincial region was more spontaneous than considered. In the early 1970s the folk art market was centered in New York and New England. The important books and trade publications on American antiques (including this magazine) were almost all published in New
York, and the most prominent collections of folk art on public view were all housed in eastern museums. But Tim claims that there was a positive aspect to the gallery’s outsider status: “We were working in a place where the rules were suspended. Freshness was the thing,” he says. Pam is more specific: “We found that we could buy something in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, or Connecticut, and we could bring it here to Michigan and our clients really didn’t care where it was from. However, in all those other states, it was a really big issue. The collectors in Pennsylvania wanted Pennsylvania. The Ohio people—for the most part—wanted Ohio. We saw that we could go into Pennsylvania and all around, pick blanket chests, bring them in, and our people were really open to them. They were looking at the design and the object. So that was a unique situation we had here in Michigan.”
From their outsider vantage the Hills saw that the hard lines in the art world were beginning to soften. Their friend and colleague Robert Bishop (1938–1991), at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, was publishing books on antiques and folk art that mixed and matched traditional and vanguard tastes. (He would soon be summoned East to become director of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.) The Hills also noted that twentieth-century folk art, much of it from obscure locales in the Midwest and Mid-South, was quietly finding a place in the folk art canon—a canon that had previously excluded works from the post-industrial era. And, as they sought out challenging inventory for their gallery, the Hills came into contact with a number of young regional artists/collectors who were also finding inspiration in the “new” folk art. Soon the Hills were displaying contemporary art along with their canes. The folk art world was being changed by events and people from its margins and they were among the agents of that change.
In 1981 the Hills relocated their gallery to Birmingham, Michigan. Extending their business beyond antiques, they featured the work of outsider artist Bill Traylor in their inaugural exhibition. Tim describes their transition as, in part, an exercise in broadening categories. “Other dealers in the antiques world who were continuing to deal with American folk art always had American furniture and decorative arts. We realized that that wasn’t going to become the backbone of what we did. We wanted to combine folk art with contemporary art under the fine art category. But in order to do that we had to establish ourselves as serious art dealers. So we still had relationships with people in the antiques world, but the direction of what we were showing and the look of what we were doing was all centered on American folk sculpture and contemporary fine art.”
During the next two decades, the Hills mounted more than one hundred exhibitions in their gallery featuring contemporary artists such as David Smith, Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois, Michael Heizer, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Alice Aycock, and Donald Judd. They also promoted public art projects involving sculptors Mark Di Suvero and Dennis Oppenheim (1938–).
Through it all, the Hills have quietly kept on collecting walking sticks. They have come to use the canes as objects of meditation—keys to understanding sculpture and art in general. “Looking at these canes,” Tim explains, “involves a kind of personal investigation that we use on everything...the collection is something we can spend a lot of time looking at and get refreshed and go back and investigate something like a Louise Bourgeois sculpture in a way that we might not have before.” He remains amazed by carvers who can transform a three-foot stick into a work of art and by “all of the imaginative things that take place within that thirty-six-inch space.” Pam agrees. “These things can become just mystical— insane, multicultural, perverse, beautiful. I think that as a category canes have the most expressive potential of anything in folk art.”
The Hills continue looking ahead. Having helped to shape a collecting culture in which “eclectic” has become an accepted style, the Hills stand behind their belief that folk art and fine art are mutually enriching. They see a future in which many forms of art will be shown together in a visual and intellectual dialogue that transcends old hierarchies of taste and classification. Pam affirms the hard-won and durable Hill perspective: “We are definitely at the point where we feel that a great piece of contemporary art with a great piece of folk art in a neutral modern space is totally beautiful.”
MICHAEL D. HALL is a sculptor, collector, and critic. He is the adjunct curator of American folk art at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio.
Correction: The printed version of this article failed to include collection and photography credits. All objects illustrated are in the collection of Tim and Pam Hill; photographs are by Jesse Hill.