by Suzanne Daub
On a fog-shrouded night in 1978, Greg and Judi Hill first visited Nantucket Island: “We arrived on the late ferry at night, got off the boat with our luggage, and we asked a cab driver if he could take us to the Jared Coffin House…” Judi smiled…”he was happy to drive us the two blocks…then we went for a walk to the end of the wharf, looked out and saw The Harbour Gallery lit up with one of Greg’s paintings in the window—a painting of a ship coming out of the fog. We said to each other ‘wouldn’t it be great someday to have a gallery here?’ It was fate.”
It may have been fate that brought Greg and Judi Hill here; it’s lucky for Nantucket that this dynamic couple has been a part of our island community for the past 40 years. Their gallery and shop add color and life to the business scene; Greg’s paintings bring images of Nantucket around the world in many collections and exhibitions; and they generously donate their time and Greg’s paintings to the benefit of many island non-profits, with tens of thousands a year raised from the sale of GS Hill’s work at island galas. “Nantucket has been very good to us…the community has been kind, people who supported his career in the beginning still support him… so we try to give back,” they explained.
Both Greg and Judi were born in southern California. Greg started painting when he was just 12-years-old—his first painting was of two sailboats at sunset. “We found the painting in his parent’s hope chest, and it’s framed and hanging at home.” Primarily self-taught, he did take some college classes in art and in architecture, but “I didn’t like to be told how to paint.” Judi met Greg while he was in college, and in 1968 they married. Greg was working as an illustrator and Judi worked for PaineWebber: “I always wanted to be a stock broker, but Greg got in the way,” she joked, “funny how things work out.
Their honeymoon in Europe ignited a love for travel that has never faded. “We’ve been to 75 countries; Europe 21 times… there are so many places to go!” That first trip they took overseas together was especially memorable: “We quit our jobs and hitchiked around Europe. But no one was picking us up, so we bought a 1957 VW bug and slept in it, in campgrounds mostly, for three months… 13 countries on $1,100—we lived on less than $5 a day using Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day…It was fantastic!
“It seems like just a couple of years ago… we had such freedom—we could just get in the car and go, we had no plan at all! We went behind the Iron Curtain twice, through Checkpoint Charlie… we even got stuck in Greece where our money was no good [a currency exchange issue].”
After returning to California, Greg and Judi Hill bought a gallery in Seal Beach called The Art Emporium. In addition to painting, “Greg would teach adult art at night and kids’ classes on weekend mornings… a few years ago, a young woman named Carol Fitzgerald walked into our gallery and said ‘Are you Judi? Greg taught me art classes when I was a little girl. I’m an illustrator now, and I love what I do—it’s because Greg inspired me!’”
In 1972, “we sold the gallery in southern California and lived in our camper van for two years, traveling. [In 1974] We were on our way to South America, and we went to Hawaii to visit one of Greg’s friends… we never left!” They lived in Maui from 1974 to 1986. It was in Maui, in 1977, that they first forged their connection to Nantucket. “Greg was having a one-man show: paintings of old whaling ships—most of the whaling ships came to Hawaii from New Bedford and Nantucket—a woman who had the Harbour Gallery on Nantucket saw the exhibit, commented on the Nantucket ships, and asked Greg to show in her gallery,” Judi explained. “I couldn’t paint fast enough!” Greg added.
Two years later, the owners of the Harbour Gallery decided to move back to Hawaii, and they asked Greg and Judi if they wanted to take over the Nantucket gallery. “We said ‘why not’… we’d had no clue when we visited in 1978 that we’d own the gallery the next year.”
For 12 years, they split their time between Nantucket and Maui, then in 1990, they moved from Maui to Carmel. Currently Greg and Judi make their winter home in Georgia on Skidaway Island.
In 1981, in addition to the gallery on Old South Wharf, the Hills opened a shop on Straight Wharf with friends and called it Straight Wharf Gallery & Gifts. Two years later they moved into #40 Straight Wharf, where they are today, renamed the shop Hill’s of Nantucket, and featured all American-made gifts. “I was brought up to respect American-made, and I’ve always been very proud to be an American,” said Judi. “I told my mom in a postcard that I wrote to her from Berlin [during their honeymoon] that the most precious thing I own is my American passport.”
Most of the gifts they sold were designed by Greg and Judi and featured G.S. Hill art—clothing with Greg’s three lighthouses, coasters, playing cards, Christmas ornaments, etched peppermills—and they still offer some of these classic designs: their china is a customer favorite.
In 1997, they closed the gallery on Old South Wharf and Greg moved his painting studio to the second floor of the gallery on Straight Wharf.
Seven years later, they consolidated a bit more, and in 2008, Judi embarked on a new venture with dear friend Pam Freitus: now a portion of the GS Hill Gallery is devoted to the Nantucket Pearl Company, with Judi selling pearl jewelry that Pam creates. The unique designs combine freshwater cultured pearls with natural stones, crystals, glass, leather, and various types of metals. Nantucket Pearl Company jewelry is created in the USA in limited quantities: many pieces are one-of-a-kind, and they are only available at 40 Straight Wharf and nantucketpearlcompany.com.
Even with all their ventures and adventures, Greg still paints every day; when they travel he takes a sketchbook and his watercolors. Greg used to go out in a skiff, anchor, and paint watercolors on location. The skiff was Bruce Killen’s boat, the one that used to hold the Christmas tree in the harbor— they named it Greg’s Office. “I put that boat in a lot of my paintings… Most times now I do a sketch on location to get the feeling, then I take it to my studio and work while listening to a book on tape. Sometimes I finish the painting on location.”
As an artist, he’s drawn to the sea and the light, early morning or late at night, and misty days. “I love painting on the wharves…the skyline…I never get tired of painting Nantucket,” Greg explained. “I want the viewer to be drawn in and be at peace, to have a happy feeling, a sense of place. I want to draw you in so that you are alone in the painting but that you don’t feel lonely,” like a meditation, “an intimate dialog with a painting…”
G.S. Hill never tires of painting or of traveling with Judi. “When we travel, Greg now takes a sketchbook and his watercolors,” Judi said. And when asked where they’re going next, she listed some parts of the globe they haven’t yet seen: “We still haven’t been to Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, Mongolia, Brunei and Borneo, the Scandinavian Fjords… there just are so many places!”
You’ll find Judi nearly every day at the G.S. Hill Gallery and Nantucket Pearl Company at 40 Straight Wharf: Greg, when not painting on location, is often there in the mornings. Paintings, prints, gifts, and Nantucket Pearl Company jewelry are also available at gshill.com and at nantucketpearlcompany.com