At 75, Pat Moss could slow down. Or just stop. Under her professional name of P. Buckley Moss, the artist has earned multimillions as the interpreter of Amish and Mennonite country. Her stylized people, animals and wintry landscapes are translated by the thousands into multiple-edition prints, decorative accessories and gift items that are sold in hundreds of galleries throughout the United States, some devoted solely to her work.
Artists' studios reveal much about work habits and output. A visit to Moss' studio on the second floor of her Beach Drive NE townhouse speaks of cyclonic activity and multitasking projects. Far from easing up, she rarely takes the time even for her preferred beverage, an espresso. She doesn't seem to need the caffeine jolt.
"I'm just grateful to have the freedom to do what I want," Moss says.
At the moment, she's working on posters for several charities, a children's book (the fifth in the "Reuben" series in collaboration with author Merle Good), half a dozen (maybe more) large paintings that will probably be used for mass reproduction (few people can afford the originals, which sell for five figures), an indeterminate number of small, whimsical animal paintings that will sell for at least several hundred dollars, quilting squares for an annual quilting convention she attends (she collects quilts), and, oh, whatever else she gets on her mind between 2 and 4 a.m., the hours when she frequently rises and starts her day.
The studio, where Moss spends most of her time, is a big dream of a workspace, right off her bedroom, full of northern and eastern light. Below tall wall-to-wall windows, cabinets and shelves hold the tools of her trade. Two white sofas sit at right angles in the center of the room anchored by an oriental rug. She doesn't use the sofas for sitting; they're covered with works in progress. Her drawing table and chair occupy a corner beneath a skylight. The room opens onto a balcony with views across North Straub Park and Tampa Bay.
The rest of the house is pretty fabulous, too. She and her former husband bought it in the mid 1980s from Dr. Grover Austin, now deceased. He built the two-story building as a family residence and facility for his plastic surgery practice. It has a sunken living room, Lucite spiral staircase and courtyard garden. Moss used it as a gallery and office space until about 10 years ago, when she sold her large historic home on Snell Isle and moved into the townhouse. The only significant change she made was to enclose the patio off the master bedroom for her studio.
"It's a lot of space for me and I know the land is so valuable now. I feel vulgar living in such an expensive place," she says. "But as long as I can afford it, I'll be vulgar."
Moss considers St. Petersburg her home, but the one here is not her only house. She has a converted barn in Virginia, a place on Chesapeake Bay and a villa in Tuscany. Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, is a neighbor and friend. Each Moss house has a studio; those in Washington and Italy are set up for both painting and etchings. She creates plates for about three or four etchings yearly. They are produced in very limited editions and can cost several thousand dollars. Giclees and lithographs are produced in much larger runs and often cost less than $100. In St. Petersburg she mostly works in watercolor, her favorite medium.
Moss travels a lot but rarely for pure pleasure. She makes frequent gallery appearances and attends many of the charity events she supports personally and through a foundation she has established. She estimates that she gives away several million dollars annually. She always draws and paints wherever she finds herself.
Studio drawers are filled with expensive new brushes in their boxes, but she uses old ones until the bristles have all but disappeared.
"Then I'll have them framed with artwork and send them off for a charity auction," she says. "I'm a child of the Depression and I waste nothing."
Moss paints rapidly, though a work can take months to complete because she is constantly putting one down and taking up another. And she'll move from home to home with each studio full of paintings in various stages of completion. Her work habits are not random. She takes seriously the hundreds of gallery owners who rely on her to keep their stock of P. Buckley Moss works fresh and plentiful.
"In each place," Moss says, "I have an abundance of work. In each I also have commitments."
The art world ignores her. She never even gets bad reviews from art critics. The museum shows she has are almost exclusively in her own museum in Waynesboro, Va., which opened in 1989 and attracts about 45,000 visitors annually.
"It's perfectly all right," Moss says. "People hate you if you make money."
It's more complicated than that; a lot of artists have earned critical plaudits along with wealth. Moss' art is dubbed commercial and repetitive, often sentimental, qualities guaranteed to land it in critical limbo.
It's also greatly loved. The late Charles Kuralt interviewed her in 1988 for his On the Road television series and dubbed her "The People's Artist." That she is. She draws crowds of admirers whenever she makes an appearance. On an unplanned visit to the P. Buckley Moss Gallery up the street from her home, she charmed a steady stream of tourists from Ohio, New York and Iowa who collect her work. She signed prints, chatted about new editions (her images are also on pins, pendants, figurines, Christmas ornaments and in snow globes, for example) and invited the group — all strangers — back to her house to see her studio. She thrives on those personal connections, and the approbation of her fans seems validation enough.
What many people don't know is how well trained she is artistically. Born Patricia Buckley in New York, Moss spent her early years failing in school because of undiagnosed dyslexia. A teacher, noting her gift for drawing, suggested an art school and Moss' mother enrolled her in the highly regarded Washington Irving High School for the Fine Arts. After graduating in 1951, she attended the Cooper Union School of Art, a prestigious program whose acceptance rate is less than 5 percent. She developed a figurative style with free brush strokes and subtle colors. She signed her works P. Buckley "because I noticed women weren't taken as seriously as men."
She married Jack Moss, an engineer, after Cooper Union and had five children in rapid succession. In 1964, with her sixth on the way, Moss moved the family to Virginia where he had gotten a new job. Pat Moss spent most of her time caring for her family. But delighted by her surroundings in the Shenandoah Valley and the Amish and Mennonite communities, she began to paint them with distilled, simple lines, almost abstracting them. There was a sweetness, purity and spirituality to the depictions. She began exhibiting them at small shows and sold the paintings almost as quickly as she could produce them.
She hit upon the mass marketing that would broaden her appeal and make her a wealthy woman by chance, she says.
"Someone bought a painting from a gallery, maybe in the late 1960s, early '70s," Moss says. "The dealer told me this person had taken it to a printer to have it reproduced for something. I was very upset and went to the printer and told him he was violating my copyrighted work and couldn't reprint them. So I wound up buying the prints he had already made and selling them myself. He became the printer who made all the lithographs of my works for years. That's how it all started."
The marriage foundered as her success grew and the Mosses divorced in 1979. Pat Moss remarried several years later to gallery owner Malcolm Henderson. They settled in St. Petersburg and expanded the line of P. Buckley Moss products into an international brand name. They divorced several years ago and Henderson now lives in Panama. Moss remains close to her adult children, some of whom followed her career path into the arts, others who are in business or the medical profession, and to her 10 grandchildren. None lives in St. Petersburg but most of them live close to her other homes so she can see them frequently.
Her greatest pleasure, besides painting, seems to be in communicating her love of it.
"The challenge for me is to have people understand my work," Moss says. "I talk to children at schools and one of them will say, 'That's so cute.' These are not just cute little things. I try to show them why."
She picks up a brush as she speaks, dips it in water and color and turns a newly finished landscape painting to its blank side. She paints a small circular shape.
"There's a nice shape, isn't it?," she says.
She dips the brush in water and more color, then paints a connecting downward line, then another.
"And there's another nice shape," she says.
She continues dipping and coloring until one of her famous Amish girls begins to emerge.
"All the shapes have a relationship to each other," she says. "Every one of the images I paint is different. You do a hand and then you think about the sleeve."
The sleeve takes form under her brush.
"I'm asked why these people have bow legs," she says, drawing two gracefully curving legs emerging from a bell-shaped skirt.
"They're not bow legs. They are that shape because of the overall design. Everything relates to everything else."
She turns the paper over, back to the landscape. When it's sold, someone will get the nice surprise of a second painting for the price of one.
She shrugs. No big deal.
Being P. Buckley Moss seems easy. It could be easy. But you know that, really, it's never as easy as it looks.
This is the first in a series about artists and their studios. If you have a suggestion for an artist, please contact Lennie Bennett.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.