Artist thrives by selling work at festivals, shows For Woodbine painter, art is a business

December 28, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Like many struggling artists, Barbara Gough Nuss regularl packs up her tarps and paintings and drives off to festivals and shows, betting on the whims of an often untutored public.

But Ms. Nuss is not struggling, and the recession year of 1992 has not dampened her patrons' enthusiasm for her oils, watercolors and prints.

"We had a very good year, my accountant tells me," said the 53-year-old Woodbine resident.

"I just sold two [oil] paintings and five watercolors this last week," she said, revealing her secret: "There's no way we could have sold as much through galleries."

But such shrewd thinking meant that she had to hitch up the 1 1/2 -ton trailer -- filled with her work, rubber boots and kerosene heater -- and spend last weekend at a cold and soggy Sugarloaf Winter Arts & Crafts Fair in Gaithersburg.

For her hard work, she and her husband and partner, Fred Nuss, get to keep most of the money that would otherwise go to a gallery.

But it's not all legwork.

The quality of Ms. Nuss' work has thrice earned the national honor of being included in the national Arts for the Parks exhibition put on by the U.S. Park Service.

Her two oils, "The Red Canoe" and "Sunset on the C&O," were picked in September from about 2,000 entries to go on tour with the exhibition.

Based in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Arts for the Parks is now at its second of six stops -- none east of the Mississippi -- in Baton Rouge, La.

Both works are of scenes along the C&O Canal. Two other C&O paintings were selected for Arts for the Parks in 1989 and 1991. One of them has been printed as a blank greeting card, and these are being sold by the U.S. Park Service at shops along the canal.

"It's a business -- you have to say it's a business. I think a lot of artists don't want to deal with that," says Ms. Nuss.

Part of dealing with it is accepting the fact that no matter how satisfying the act of creation is, the end result must be viewed as a commodity.

"People say to me, 'How can you part with these things?' " she said, explaining that parting with them is what she does, and has been doing throughout her career.

"You go into my dining room, or my living room or my kitchen. I don't have artwork in there."

She pauses, visualizing the rest of her house, and grins. "Quilting is my hobby," she says, laughing. "I couldn't imagine selling them."

Ms. Nuss has painted since age 8 and aspired to be a professional artist ever since college. Upon graduation from Syracuse University in 1960, she promptly went to work as a pen-and-ink fashion illustrator for a department store.

Since then, she has worked for several graphic arts firms doing government contract work in Washington, and she spent 10 years in the advertising department of the Montgomery Journal, then a weekly newspaper.

In 1982, she left her job as the Journal's advertising manager, married Fred Nuss, a Westinghouse engineer, and began painting full time. "I guess I needed the subsidy," she joked of her marriage.

But Mr. Nuss retired from Westinghouse and is now a full partner in her business, making frames, photo graphing paintings for print sales, and silk screening in their basement.

The string of Arts in the Parks showings has brought her back to the beginning of a circle that began with her first show in 1975, at the National Park Service's gallery next to the C&O Canal in Georgetown.

While some of her larger oils sell for more than $1,000, her better-selling paintings cost less than $200. Even the more inexpensive photographic prints of her works are best-sellers.

"They're my bread and butter," she says of the $49 prints. "One woman bought them as Christmas presents for her three daughters, and another woman bought six for her house."

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