It’s not easy to lose an obsession and Michael Stumpf of Holicong has given up trying.
It started as a boy of 5 when he got his first cardboard Nativity scene and though he might want to become a monk.
It continued through a 20-year career as a banker at the old Doylestown Federal Savings across from the courthouse. He made Nativities, set them up on the counter and charged $35 a piece. They were so popular that he upped the price to $50.
In 1988, leaving the bank as a senior vice president, he formed his own advertising-public relations firm, but continued making Nativities in his spare time.
Then in 1996 when Country Living magazine featured his work, a reader asked what he charged for the pictured Nativity. And off the top of his head, he blurted out “$3,500.”
That was the jump-start. After that serious orders started coming in.
Today his Nativities can sell for up to $11,000.
Martha Stewart wanted him on her TV show. The Vatican wanted him to design the official centennial creche.
Stumpf turned them down. He said he wasn’t ready.
“I had a chat with the Man upstairs. I said I’m going to need some help,” Stumpf recalls.
And lo and behold help arrived in the form of Bob and Joyce Byers of Byers Choice figurines who staged a show of his work where he met 36-year-old A.J. DiAntonio of Coatesville.
“We hit it off. We finish each others sentences,” Stumpf said.
Now they work together at Stumpf’s backyard studio called Sanctuary once a week, because DiAntonio has a full-time job running a Christmas store in Paoli.
“He’s my Energizer Bunny,” Stumpf says. But “he has OCD -- Obsessive Christmas Disorder. He’s crazy and he knows it. He has 400 Nativities of his own. As far back as he remembers, he’s had an interest in Nativities.”
“At Navidad Nativities we tell the story as it inspires us,” DiAntonio has written. “To relate the birth of our Savior to the people who are moved to feel something by our art. The purpose of all art, to feel something that we cannot always explain.”
For DiAntonio the Nativity obsession took hold at the age of 2.
The obsession, though diminished, followed him to Hollywood where he was a producer for 12 years, producing such events as the Oscar opening ceremonies for Billy Crystal. But on his return to Pennsylvania, “it went out of control,” he admits.
“Nativities give millions of people something to believe in and we get to create a visual interpretation of that,” DiAntonio said.
Three years ago, the pair, working as Navidad Nativities, was invited to show their work at the Glencairn Museum’s annual World Nativities exhibition next to the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, at Bryn Athyn in Montgomery County. They have been invited back ever since.
This year they entered the “Renaissance Duomo” (which sells for $3,200) and “Conservatory Creche” ($2,900).
The museum owns two of Navidad’s Nativities which can be seen only on the “Christmas in the Castle” guided tour: the “Bryn Athyn Nativity” and the “Antique Assisi Creche.”
The pair have finished and sold most of some 20 Nativity orders this year and already have orders for next year, Stumpf said.
CBS-TV in Philadelphia wants to come out and do a story on them.
“ ‘Why haven’t we heard of you,’ they wanted to know,” he chuckled.
“We’re careful of what we take on. We’re going to walk very carefully,” he said.
Stumpf is ever-mindful that obsessions can go rogue.
“It’s like having a tiger by the tail,” he says of runaway visions of fame and glory.
He has nightmares of some “Frank in Des Moines” calling up and demanding “where are those 15 Nativities I ordered and when will you get that done.”
Stumpf hopes that one day DiAntonio comes on board full time “and I’ll continue as a consultant.”
“I would love that,” DiAntonio says. “I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I would love that.”
“I am, at the core, an artist” said Stumpf, who is also a longtime painter in oil and acrylics.
Determined to stay grounded, Stumpf just hopes Navidad’s message of new birth and hope remains as meaningful in the current times of upheaval as it did in the beginning.
World Nativities can be viewed daily from noon to 4 p.m. through Jan. 6 (closed Dec. 24 and 25) for a donation of $5 or as part of Glencairn’s paid guided tour, “Christmas in the Castle.”
For information: 267-502-2600; GlencairnMuseum.org or info@GlencairnMuseum.org.