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.’”

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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