Deborah Buck, owner of the eclectic Madison Avenue store Buck House, as well the adjacent gallery, is gregarious and she knows how lucky she is. She started out as a painter and still has a studio in her apartment, but she also said that she finally gave herself permission to do other things that made her happy, like holding salons, gallery exhibitions and becoming a trained chef, after the birth of her son, Sam, 13 years ago. She travels extensively, hunting down the objects that make up the mix of antiques and contemporary pieces in the store, saying that owning it has been ‘one of the most creative endeavors of my life.’
I was curious as to how you started off as a painter, even though now you do many other things.
Let’s see, I graduated from Trinity College in Hartford with a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts and I went to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. I was very, very lucky when I was 16, to meet Clifford Still. (I grew up outside of Baltimore). And Clifford Still didn’t like anybody, he was really a curmudgeon, but my father and he used to have breakfast every morning at the same roadside restaurant … my father had become a farmer.
Anyway, they would talk baseball. At one point my father said ‘I have a daughter who is very interested in the arts, would you meet with her?’ And so he did. Mrs Still did most of the talking and he sat stirring his coffee. When he was ready to speak, he talked about the art world, Rothko … Clement Greenburg … for me as a young person he was like a magical wizard. He really became my mentor. He sent me to Skowhegan in his name. He said ‘You’ll make it. You have stars in your eyes.’ We would meet occasionally and he would talk to me about being an artist. [she makes air quotation marks with her fingers when she says ‘artist’]
Why did you make those quotation marks when you said the word ‘artist’?
Oh because … well … you know … because it’s part of the travel, it’s part of my journey to learn and it took me ’til my forties to figure out that really no matter what I did, I was an artist, that I wasn’t just a painter, which was what I thought for 35 years. Then I became a chef and I realized that when I got the glazed carrots just the right color, that that was like getting the magenta next to the cyan, and having it go like that [snaps her fingers] … everything is just form and color and shape and space.
When you worked full-time as an artist did you feel guilty all the time you weren’t painting?
Yeah. That’s the problem with having a studio is that if you’re not in your studio, you’re a waste on the planet. What are you doing? You have a studio … the guilt of not going [to work in it] … that’s really like the pain of being an artist, the isolation.
Do you think it’s necessary?
No, I don’t. Christopher [her husband] and I met and I moved to Boston for two years and I painted, painted, painted … and then I had my son, Sam. Children, I think, connect you to the world in a way that you can’t know is going to happen. And all of a sudden I didn’t want to lock myself in my studio anymore and I had to be really burning up to make something, if it was worth not being with him … or working collaboratively in the world of art and design. Christopher said to me, and it was like the most brilliant thing he ever said, was ‘Just give yourself three months, put your studio in storage … I have a feeling things are going to happen in your head that you don’t know. You’ve just been like a dog with a bone.’
What did you do in that time?
In that time I went to cooking school and one thing led to the next.
I suppose lots of people think that artists inevitably suffer pain and depression as part of what they do, but I would say that real artists produce their work in spite of whatever suffering they endure, not because of it.
Well I never believed in the starving and pain part … clearly! For me having Sam was such a joyful thing … I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be an artist and a mother. I was released … it wasn’t so interesting to be in the studio anymore picking around in the cobwebs of my mind.
Are you a very gregarious person anyway?
Yeah! I like people. I love parties. I always felt that I seemed too straight to be an artist. I’ve always been yin and yang, uptown and downtown.
If you had to choose, using the uptown and downtown metaphor, which would it be?
You know, I don’t believe in having to choose … I think one of the best mantras one can have is ‘Who cares?’ That’s the great thing about having the store. It’s my vision and it’s a very eccentric vision I think, but you can come into my store and if you don’t like it, don’t buy anything!
What is your vision for your store?
Well, it’s eclecticism in the extreme. And as a painter and a colorist, I always love to get the most out of any given color. And color is only the color that it is because of the color next to it. And also, [I’m interested in] what it is about disparate things that when you put them together, can make them more interesting.
Where do you buy your stock?
I’m buying all the time. I’m one of those people, you know I can go to the dentist and come home with a lamp. The stuff just finds me.
Who are you reading about at the moment?
I just finished Bergdorf Blondes [by Plum Sykes], which was really fun! [laughs] I just thought she nailed the ridiculousness of the ‘it’ thing and I thought she had a great sense of humor about chasing after the ‘it’ thing and really how stupid it is. When I read literature, Robert Stone is probably my favorite author.
With your gallery and parties, you seem to have re-starting the salon idea …
That is what the gallery is about. I grew up in Baltimore and there’s the Cone Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Cone sisters were sort of like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. And [in the museum] there was this small room where they had recreated their apartment and to me, as a kid, it always looked so cozy. It was like oriental carpets on the sofas and fringe and patterned velvet, stuff all over the place. And I remember thinking now that would be a good place to be in a party, that would be some interesting conversation … I think if you get a bunch of creative people in one place that there’s an energy that you can make.
Do you still cook?
Yes, a lot.
What’s your idea of a nice meal at the end of the day?
I love to make osso bucco. I love to make braised meals, coq au vin … like peasant food. I love peasant food. I hate baking … it’s much too exact.
by Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch © New York Social Diary, 2007