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Stops Along the Way

Published in Create & Decorate Magazine, by Noelle A. DeMarco

See the complete article with photographs here >>

Have you ever stumbled upon something quite by accident, and then that something turns out to be the best part of your day? Vaillancourt Folk Art was one of those very happy accidents, a beautiful detour that we believe was meant to be.

When Beverly and I took our trip to Massachusetts for the Brimfield Antique Show (another story for another time), we wanted to squeeze as much out of the adventure as possible, so we planned a few little side stops here and there along the way. On the trip up, we stopped at a pottery studio that we were so excited about—only to find it closed when we arrived. Major bummer, but we didn’t let it dampen our spirits (okay, maybe we cried—but only a little). On the way home, we were still riding the thrill of our antiques haul and weren’t quite ready to see the end of our trip; so, we ended up taking a more scenic route to stretch it out a little more. We were remarking at how the homes and buildings we were passing were just so full of character, and as we passed a beautiful stone mill from the 1800s, we made a lighting decision to pull in and explore. It’s what we like to think of as one of the best decisions ever made.

When we entered the building, we found to our surprise that it was the Vaillancourt Folk Art Studio, Gallery, and Museum. We had discussed making this visit when we were planning our trip, but a phone call reported that all the tours were booked, so we put it down on the “oh well, maybe next time” list. But much to our delight, we were greeted by Bette Keene, who, despite out unannounced arrival and lack of appointment, was the most gracious tour guide, and gave us an all-access, VIP tour. We felt like rock stars, (only much less cool).

As soon as you walk in, there is a wonderful hush, and your eyes take in the open and airy space. The shop is to your left, lit by twinkling white lights and surrounded by antique windows and shutters. The Vaillancourt English Creamware line is also on display: beautiful tea pots, and die-cut plates and serving dishes just begging to be purchased. The artwork totally fills your senses: everywhere you look, you are surrounded by rows and rows of chalkware figurines, grinning snowmen on shelves above you, stoic Santas beside you, all in different stages of completion. I had to keep reminding myself to take notes, instead of staring openmouthed at these incredible works of art.

We learned that the moulds used to make these figurines were originally used for chocolate; fill them with chocolate, however, and you lose the amazing details. On the other hand, by painting the figurines, these astonishingly talented artists are able to bring to life every tiny smile, wink, and curved eyebrow. Watching them work—literally standing over their shoulders and watching each brushstroke—was beyond belief, and an experience neither of us will forget.

The Vaillancourt story is simple enough, but is filled with innovation and plenty of creative spirit. When Judi Vaillancourt’s husband, Gary, gave her those three (now infamous) antique chocolate moulds 26 years ago, he certainly didn’t foresee the idea his wife would eventually come up with, or the direction in which it would take their family.

Not one to sit on her hands, Judi began to look around for something else to make after she had exhausted every which way of making chocolate. She ultimately ended up with chalkware, and now has one of the largest collections of vintage moulds in the world—3,000. They come from all over the world, with some dating back to the 18th century. Many of the moulds were originally used for ice cream, and some of the larger moulds were used for window displays at chocolate shops. In her collection, Judi has some moulds from Riecke & Co (Holland), Anton Reiche (Germany), Sommet (France), and T.C. Weygandt (New York). These moulds are the basis for each hand-painted variation of Santas, Father Christmas, Belsnickles, and other non-Christmas figurines.

To prevent wear and tear, many of the antique moulds have been recreated in latex, though Judi has created some new moulds, mostly designed for specific customers and events. Once chalkware is poured into a mould and the process begins, a few days will pass before its total completion; the unmoulded piece must dry, be painted and glazed, then sealed and finished. Once they are totally complete, each piece is hand signed and numbered. Judi uses both historical and contemporary inspiration in all her designs, but she is not some wizard behind a curtain who meters out commands; she designs and hand paints each piece from her studio. Her creativity could circle the world and back.

While Christmas and Santa are the dominant theme in many of Judi’s pieces, you may also find Halloween and Easter pieces, among other seasonal themes. Custom pieces have become a growing percentage of wholesale sales as well, and they take a lot of creative planning to come together—a piece may take anywhere from 6 – 8 months before it reaches store shelves. Judi meets with the client and discusses the vision they have. She will then look through her collection and find a mould that will work, then redesign it accordingly. Pieces have been designed for Colonial Williamsburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus.

One of the most popular pieces is the annual Starlight Santa, which is only produced for one year, then retired on Christmas Eve. A portion of the proceeds is donated to the Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation, and it’s easy to see why these adorably artistic pieces are clamored for every year. Try and resist one; we dare you.

The company is still family-owned and operated, with Gary handling retail and wholesale operation and their son, Luke, in charge of digital marketing and eCommerce. Every piece is 100% American-made, a fact of which the Vaillancourt family is most proud. Whether you make a planned road trip, or you happily (and maybe even accidentally) stumble upon Vaillancourt, please, push open that door and go see these beautiful, one-of-kind pieces of art; you certainly won’t be sorry. Hopefully, you’ll even be tempted to start a collection—and a tradition—of your own.

DeMarco, N. A. (2010, December). stops along the way: vaillancourt folk art. Create & Decorate, (228), Retrieved from http://createanddecorate.com/stopsalongtheway/dec10/index.shtml