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Nancy Gertig scuplts garden gnomes like these to sell at local arts and craft shows.
Nancy Gertig | Courtesy

Grinning garden gnomes and birdbaths graced with delicate woodland creatures are some of Hillsdale resident and professional artist Nancy Gertig’s recent creations.

“My husband presses the birdbaths and then we make little critters to go on them,” Nancy Gertig said. “Little turtles, and frogs and dragonflies and flowers and things. Nobody else does it like that so it’s neat.”

Nancy Gertig and her husband make the birdbaths to sell at arts and crafts shows around Michigan. At the beginning of a show the birdbaths won’t sell at all, but, by the afternoon, customers start coming back, she said. Then, the birdbaths sell out within 45 minutes.

Nancy Gertig and her husband John started selling artwork professionally over 20 years ago while they were living in Texas.

“Someone talked us into doing a local show. We tried that, then we did a little bit bigger one, then a little bit bigger one and it was just amazing,” Nancy Gertig said. “It amazed us that we could make so much money in a weekend at an art show.”

Three years later, her husband left his aircraft engineering job to work with her on art full-time. The two of them started with 24 art shows a year, and people in the area started collecting their work.

“We’d send out cards and let everybody know where we were going to be, and they would come and buy,” Nancy Gertig said. “We still have customers in Texas, though we haven’t been down there in a couple years.”

They also sold their work wholesale, in Hallmark shops and stores from Maine to California. But selling wholesale means selling through somebody’s else’s shop, so there was no connection between the Gertigs and their customers.

“We felt like we were mass producing and shipping clerks and we hated it,” Nancy Gertig said. “So we pulled out of that and we’ve never sold wholesale since.”

They relocated to Hillsdale, Michigan, closer to Ann Arbor, where she grew up, and the University of Michigan, where she went to school. Michigan was also closer to some of the best arts and crafts shows in the nation.

According to Nancy Gertig, people are drawn from all over the country to shows in Michigan. People come from Arizona and Florida in the summer to avoid the heat, and people in the area come because Michigan shows are free.

“People just love it, they love being able to go and buy from the person who makes the work,” Nancy Gertig said. “Especially with so many imports. People love to buy from the maker so they know exactly where their product is coming from.”

Grace DeSandro, a senior Art major at Hillsdale College and the Gertigs’ adopted daughter at College Baptist Church, said she was not surprised people enjoyed buying from them.

“She is confident in her work, but not pushy,” DeSandro said. “She’s easily relatable and never feels like she’s trying to sell something. She’s just really, really nice.”

DeSandro said Nancy Gertig taught her to sculpt a little monster from a template she used to use to teach children how to work with clay.

“It was fun to take a break from school and from life,” DeSandro said about her visit. “It was relaxing, controlled, and I was watched by the eyes of a master.”

According to DeSandro, Nancy Gertig also made a name for herself in Hillsdale by sculpting collectible Santa figurines. Every year she sculpted a new one, and every year they sold so well that she had to develop molds for them rather than sculpt them individually.

Ryan Taylor, a Hillsdale resident and wholesale potter, said the Gertigs helped him establish his own studio.

Aside from shaping pots, potters also need to know how to manage electrical connections for specialty ovens called kilns, Nancy Gertig explained. John Gertig oversees the kilns at their house, and helped Taylor with the kilns at his own studio.

Taylor sells his work wholesale to tourist shops in northern Michigan and through commission. Though his work is different than the Gertigs’, he said he still owes them for all the advice they gave him.

Nancy Gertig says that the relationships are what keep her coming back to her work.

“I think it’s going and selling at the shows that kept us going, because we had so many customers,” Nancy Gertig said. “People had been buying from us for over 20 years, the same people. And you build up a relationship, so they come and talk to you and want to know about your family, and tell you all about their family, and you watch people just obviously love what you’re making.”