John Stickler

On a bright afternoon in May 1972, Mrs. Molera led some of her Nogales third-grade students on a walk from A.J. Mitchell Elementary School up the hill to a new art gallery. The children were there to see their classroom artwork, posters in a “primavera” theme, displayed for the public. Alma Chavarria, age 7, was among the budding artists, and her experience that day was the start of a lifelong connection to Hilltop Gallery.

The gallery was the brainchild of two influential local women, artist Jean Reischauer Wisdom and Louise Holm, who believed Nogales needed a place where local talent could be introduced to the community and children could discover the visual arts. The gift of a central parcel of land, donated by the Holm family in 1967, launched the dream into reality. Supportive Santa Cruz County merchants, ranchers and produce dealers pitched in and contributed enough to design, build and furnish the new gallery. The nonprofit Patrons of the Arts, which operates the facility, was incorporated in 1968.

The gallery’s official opening, in September 1972, made front-page news and established it as the cultural center of Nogales. It’s showcased art from across the Southwest and hosted exhibits from other galleries, the Mexican consulate, schools, groups and individuals. The city sponsors arts and crafts classes during the summer, and on Saturdays during the school year, Alfredo I. Velásquez, the county school superintendent, sponsors art classes for children and adults.

One-person exhibits at Hilltop Gallery have enhanced the careers of Southwestern artists. One of them, David Simons, is a native of Canada who arrived in nearby Tubac as a residential contractor in the 1990s. He’s held three shows at Hilltop and now has his own studio and gallery in Tubac. And watercolorist and children’s book illustrator Soma Han held a retrospective exhibit at Hilltop in 2020.

By 2002, Alma Chavarria had grown up, joined the Patrons of the Arts and married Carlos Piña. Her daughter, also an Alma with artistic talent, signed up for the summer arts and crafts program at Hilltop, eventually teaching in the same program. In 2021, mother Alma was invited to come full circle and present her bright floral artworks in a one-person show. Her three dozen pieces lit up the gallery. Other longtime figures include board member, historian and exhibit coordinator Janice Johnson, who turned 90 in December and has been with the gallery for more than 40 years.

For its 50th anniversary, Hilltop Gallery is hosting a yearlong celebration, culminating in September, that features a revolving exhibit by artists who’ve displayed their work there during the past half-century. If you stop by, say hello to Alma Piña. She works there now.

Hilltop Gallery is located at 730 N. Hilltop Drive in Nogales. For more information, call 520-287-5515 or visit