Meet Barbara Buck, a Freeport, Ill.-area artist who’s made a hobby – and now a living – of showing Jolly St. Nick in all sorts of year-round attire.
Spend just a few minutes talking with Barbara Buck, and you’ll know exactly what drives her, in both art and life: passion.
“It’s a feeling that grabs your heart and soul,” says Buck. “You won’t find great artists without it, that passion for life, and it carries over into their art.”
Buck works out of her beautiful Victorian home in Freeport, Ill., next door to her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. Almost 20 years ago, Buck, a single mother, left her job as an insurance adjuster to follow her passion. Since then, she’s earned a comfortable living, selling the product of that passion: hand-made Santas. But Buck’s aren’t of the everyday, “jolly-old-St.-Nick” ilk. Hers are all one-of-a-kind, heirloom-quality figures, made with first-rate materials, old-world craftsmanship – and lots of love.
She originally lived and worked in her rural studio in Pearl City, Ill. She bought the house in town about 12 years ago, to use as a temporary showroom for her Santas. She held onto it longer than she intended, in order to care for her elderly mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given about 6 weeks to live. Buck wanted her last days to be spent at home, where she could spend quality time with her granddaughter and great-grandchildren. Buck intended to be in town for about another year, at the most. That timeline wasn’t exactly accurate.
“Mom rallied and lived another two years,” Buck says with a laugh. “It was wonderful. We went to matinees, out to dinner. We really got close. I still miss her.”
That was three years ago. Shortly after Mom passed away, another family member was in need of a place to stay, and Buck once again extended her hospitality – and her in-town residency. She now has the place to herself – not counting the comings and goings of the grandkids – so she could move back to Pearl City, but the bulk of her tools and materials are in town. She does escape to the country once in awhile, in order to concentrate on her art uninterrupted.
Buck admits unabashedly that she absolutely loves Christmas (she has a Christmas room in her home), and she has crafted thousands of Santas over the years. They come to life in her workshop, on an old kitchen table, in her very Victorian-like basement. She uses mostly hand tools and elbow grease – no state-of-the-art computers or programmable sewing machines here. A seamstress and a woodworker supply much of the clothing and props, although Buck has made all of the pieces herself in the past. Even without any sewing or building of stands and props, each Santa takes about two weeks to put together, and she tries to keep between 25 and 30 ready for sale at all times. Of those on display, Buck says none is more than six months old.
“Everything I make, I sell,” she says.
That’s an amazing feat, considering she does little marketing, and she sells almost exclusively from her home and by attending certain select shows during the year; she doesn’t even own a computer. Not to mention, the cost for a full-size Barbara Buck Santa starts at about $700 (smaller ones go for about $600).
But her customers get what they pay for. Buck uses vintage fabric, antiques and special-order, hand-made props to adorn her figures, which range between 28 and 36 inches. She sculpts the hands and heads herself using Premo! brand, the best polymer clay available, which is baked to hardness. Each head requires a four-step process, including baking after each step, in order to ensure optimum quality and durability. She uses glass eyes, and carves in and paints on the features that give each face its unique, lifelike character. Buck builds each wooden armature herself, inserting heavy-duty wires into dowels that will become arms and legs. “I like my figures to be posable,” she explains. To give them their Santa-like physiques, she stuffs plain cotton bodies with poly fill, which she wraps around the armatures. After attaching the head and hands, she then outfits them: hand-sewn clothes; real fur trim; beards made of Tibetan, Persian or curly Mohair wool; antique and hand-picked props. They are placed in special poses with other props, to create the specialty-themed Santas that her customers clamor for.
For example, her bestseller, Trapper Santa, dressed in old woolen fabrics, stands holding an antique trap and a bundle of real animal hides. Also popular is Canoeing Santa, sporting an actual fox hide for his hood and cape, posed inside a real birch bark canoe – about four feet long – with a moose in the front. Santa has a hand-made wooden oar in his hands and a spotted fawn on his lap. Victorian Santa is richly appointed, his coat made of wool, velvet or fox, with real fur trim and velvet sashes, holding an antique lamp or bells.
“In the early years, it seemed that everybody and his brother were making Santas,” Buck says. Her first show was in 1992, at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, where she debuted her Trapper Santa. “The following year, lo-and-behold, a Santa maker from Texas displayed her Trapper Santa down the hall from me,” she says. “But competition only made me better. There aren’t many Santa artists out there anymore, but I’m hanging in there.”
Her business has persevered while others have not, Buck believes, because of her drive to keep her ideas fresh.
“My latest Santa is ‘Grape Stomper,’ an update on my ‘Little Old Winemaker,’ which I did two years ago,” she explains. “‘Santa the Chef’ has spun off into ‘Gingerbread Baker’ and ‘Pasta Chef.’ I’ve recently designed ‘Soldier Santa,’ ‘Veterinarian Santa,’ ‘Nautical Santa’ – you get the idea.”
One of Buck’s favorite new designs is “Eskimo Gift-Giver,” inspired by a book she read about a group of Greenland Eskimos brought back to the United States by Admiral Robert Perry.
“These look like Eskimos, with brown, flat faces and fur parkas made from Arctic fox,” she says. “I had to work on it for a while, but I’ve finally perfected the look of ice. They’ll have snowshoes, wooden fish, a Husky or Malamute, and each will be holding a gift from nature.”
Buck also does color themes, especially popular on her Victorian Santas. “I use tapestries, velvets and old textured woolens, and colors ranging from rich dark tones to shiny satin and pastels,” she says. “All Victorians wear fully-lined, hooded robes and are embellished appropriately.”
Buck does the jolly, Americanized Santa as well. “These feature a red-suited jolly Santa, seated in a rocking chair, reading ‘The Night Before Christmas,’” she says. “There’s a Christmas tree to his right and a coat rack to his left, with his jacket on it. He’s wearing hand-knit socks with his big toe sticking out of one. I just love making him. I do a ‘Toy Room Santa,’ too, surrounded by Teddy bears, vintage tin toys, marbles and books.”
Buck scours flea markets, garage sales, resale and treasure shops in search of her props and fabrics. She even attends events like a recent taxidermy show, where she located a supplier for the perfect canoe for her Canoeing Santa. She hoards items she knows will be useful eventually, like a miniature slot machine found 18 years ago, and used just last year for a Santa commissioned by a casino.
Buck, naturally peppy, is even more energetic and animated as she describes her various designs. As she shows off the racks of clothing in her garage, she begins to gather some of the garments into her arms.
“Ooh, I made this from an authentic Navajo blanket,” she effuses as she pulls a dusty blue jacket with Native American symbols out of the mash of clothes. “I’m going to take this into the house. I need to make a Southwest Santa.
“Isn’t this just a gorgeous fabric?” she asks rhetorically, holding up a stunning green satin cape with a brown fur collar. “And these are for my Swiss Santa,” she says, holding up a pair of lieder hosen with leather suspenders and an edelweiss embellishment on the bib. “Aren’t they perfect? I haven’t made a Swiss Santa for a while. I’ll take this in, too.”
Even though she uses the same props and fabrics on multiple Santas, no two are identical, because of the nature of hand crafting, and the additions and customizations that make each one singular. Buck also makes custom-order Santas.
“I love special orders, especially when my customers furnish the props,” she says. “I recently did a special order for the Jeanette Chambers family of Milledgeville, ‘The Biologist.’ This family brought over a microscope and frog, perfectly proportioned for a 29-inch Santa.”
Buck says these special orders become family heirlooms. “Over the years, parents order more and more, one for each family member,” she says. “They put them in their wills.”
The high quality and specialty themes mean that a Barbara Buck Santa often is left out year-round, open to the effects of dust, humidity and sunlight. Thus, her purchased Santas sometimes undergo makeovers – at customers’ requests, of course. “I freshen them up, restuff them, add face color,” Buck explains. “The price depends on the condition and amount of time required. I recently re-built four Santas that were brought back up from Florida.”
Some people don’t want them touched at all, however, preferring the original version, with no changes, which speaks to the high value owners place on these distinctive, individual pieces.
Some own 20-plus Barbara Buck Santas, like Janey Morse of Pearl City. In addition (not counting those for her children), she’s given at least another dozen away as gifts to friends who literally reside all over the world. The most recent, she says, was to a starting NFL quarterback whom she can’t name.
“The quality is the first thing that attracts me to her work,” says Morse. “Then, does the face make me smile? Last is the customization.” Another repeat customer is June Cooke, a former Freeport resident now living in North Carolina, who actually designed two of the Santas Buck still builds today.
Buck can spend all day talking about her art and her life, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Inbetween stuffing, sculpting, sewing, sawing and staining, she loves to cook, and she puts as much passion into that as everything else.
“I was invited to a church potluck, and I’ve got a big pot of beans, a roast chicken and two strawberry desserts,” she says, laughing. “I don’t think anyone else even needs to bring any food. And it’s not even my church! I just get caught up.”
Though her Santas are expensive, Buck doesn’t consider them extravagances. “Everyone needs to have something that makes them feel good, and my Santas make people happy,” she says. “Even in this economy, people need things that bring them joy.”
Someday, when she doesn’t need to rely on them to pay the bills, Buck hopes to offer a class to teach others how to create her Santas. “When I’m not around anymore, I want others to be able to make my Santas,” she says. “I’d like to pass on the skills, and keep the art alive.”
There it is again, that passion that drives all great artists.
Or at least, this one. ❚