In 1984, when Judi Vaillancourt received a gift of three antique chocolate moulds from her husband, Gary, neither of them would know what would have become of it. But, today, families around the globe celebrate the tradition of Vaillancourt chalkware and ornaments.
A Brief History of Traditions
Vaillancourt Folk Art started in 1984, when Judi, a classically trained artist with a passion for antiques and Christmas, adapted the Victorian art form of chalkware into her own process by pouring liquid chalk into vintage confectionery moulds (including candy, ice cream, and chocolate moulds) and applying her fine-art skills to the resulting three-dimensional canvas. Considered a contemporary chalkware, these figures (both Santa and rabbits, among other things) were quick to sell out when taken to Folk Art craft fairs around the country. Seeing this potential, Gary quit his job in high-tech to focus on this new passion and, together, they set up a studio in their circa 1700s house; the kitchen was used for pouring, the dining room for painting, and the bedrooms for shipping. Within a few short months, the demand had grown (as did their need to get their kitchen back) and they gutted their basement to transform it into their new studios to accommodate just under a dozen employees. A few short years later, in 1987, with the need for more space combined with a real estate opportunity, Gary and Judi purchased an 1820s farmhouse located a few short miles from their home that acted as the original headquarters, home to production, offices, and a new retail store. Fueled by ‘80s Americana craze, the retail store regularly featured American artists like Christopher LaMontagne, Judie Tasch, and Tasha Tudor and their chalkware was soon receiving Hollywood support from the likes of Tom Bergeron and Emma Samms.
The business was thriving during this time period and caught the eyes of overseas manufacturers. As knockoffs began to surface in the early 1990s, Judi’s solution wasn’t to compete with price (a futile decision many artists in similar situations chose to do), but to increase quality and, in turn, price. “It was very hard pressed for an American company to compete with the price of Chinese manufacturing, so we had to take the fight to where they couldn’t compete: quality,” Gary Vaillancourt said.
The growth of a business really took shape when in 1989 Vaillancourt Folk Art began wholesaling their Chalkware and, three years later, introduced the first ever ornament line (then German) for Nordstrom department stores.
A true family business from the start (Gary and Judi’s parents were among the first hired employees) the tradition continued with their son, Luke, joining the company in 2007 to focus the company’s digital footprint through eCommerce and enhanced marketing. In a post 9-11 world, the marketplace had dramatically changed. “Hundreds of small mom-and-pop shoppes had closed their doors and the large department stores had changed how they were buying,” Gary Vaillancourt said. “In order to adapt to the industry, we had to focus on growing our online distribution while refining the tangible experience of shopping in our retail store.” Concurrently with Luke joining the company, Vaillancourt Folk Art moved, yet again, to their current location undefined by walls—a 12,000 sq/ft space within a historic textile mill. This open space allowed their retail gallery to be elaborately decorated like that of the old department stores while being a more efficient production studio open for tours where visitors can watch the artists paint each Santa by hand. Additionally, a Christmas Museum was created to display the history of the Vaillancourt Santas alongside the Vaillancourt’s personal collection of over 3,000 antique chocolate molds.
Today, Vaillancourt chalkware, ornaments, and dinnerware are found at the very best stores, museums, and catalogs around the country. The Vaillancourts attribute their success to their customers. “We live in a disposable world where it is not uncommon for people to buy and discard. With that in mind, our goal isn’t just to create a beautiful fine art product, but to begin a tradition that can be passed down to the next generation,” says Luke M. Vaillancourt.
In an economy that has been the demise of many businesses, Vaillancourt Folk Art celebrated their 30th Anniversary in 2014 as a testament to consumers being conscious about quality, being supportive of American made , and being appreciative of the quality of customer service that can only be attained from family business.
It’s hard to tell when a tradition begins….
- The Birth of Contemporary Chalkware.
- A comprehensive history of Vaillancourt Folk Art
- Traditions’ “In The Studio” 2013 interview with the Vaillancourt family.
- Early American Life’s 30th Anniversary Article
- About Vaillancourt Folk Art of Sutton, Massachusetts
- Our Studios
- Gerald Charles Dickens
- My Account
- The Chalkware Tradition by Vaillancourt Folk Art in Sutton, MA
- It’s hard to tell when a tradition begins…
- A Fine Art Collectible, Made in Massachusetts
- Shop Vaillancourt on-line!
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