A Thirty-Year Tradition

Early American Life Christmas 2014

(PHOTOGRAPHS BY WINFIELD ROSS)

(PHOTOGRAPHS BY WINFIELD ROSS)


Early American Life Christmas 2014

Vaillancourt Folk art gives us the rare opportunity to watch a new Form of Folk art—born in America—blossom and grow. We gave you a First look at chocolate-mould Santas thirty years ago. Today they are more popular than ever.

 

Watching a new folk art tradition blossom and grow is a rare treat, one for which longtime Early American Life readers have had a front-row seat. We might even have had a role in its creation. For thirty years chocolate-mould Santas, crafted by Vaillancourt Folk art, have decorated holiday displays across the country (and now around the world).

The special Santas combine several historical traditions—chocolate moulds, Belsnickels, and even the colorful decorations of Central and Eastern Europe—with the gifted artistry of Judi Vaillancourt. The concept seems simple—pour a plaster-like moulding compound into a mould and paint the resulting stark-white figure. The key is Judi’s artistry, which captures the spirit and tradition of 19th-Century Christmases.

The moulds are the essential element, the link to history. Used for making chocolate to display in candy stores, they came in different sizes and varieties, all meant to astound the viewer—and make him hungry for chocolate. Candystore keepers in Europe believed a towering holiday gnome of milk chocolate—sometimes four feet tall—would catch your eye and wallet, making you want to buy more diminutive sweet treats for your loved ones.

Chocolate being evanescent (especially with hungry children around), Judi saw an opportunity to capture the enchantment of the holidays in a more permanent form by casting figures in a special plaster. Then, mixing her own artistic sensibilities with traditional European (and ethnic american) folk art painting, she decorated the otherwise white castings in the holiday’s finest imaginings.

Every figure made by the Vaillancourts starts in a historic mould, some of which are individually worth tens of thousands of dollars. To ensure variety the Vaillancourts have amassed one of the most extensive collections of moulds (not necessarily all for chocolate) in the world. Within their studio they created a small museum to display these antiques, some paired with Judi’s original castings, and they have collected original European catalogues showing the moulds available at the time.

Early American Life readers were first introduced to the Vaillancourts in a June 1984 article detailing the restoration of their post-and-beam Massachusetts house. That Christmas we showed the house again. Here the dining room was decorated with greenery, fresh fruit, and candlelight. The marbled floor, patterned after one at Van Cortlandt Manor in New York’s Hudson Valley, is Judi’s handiwork.

Early American Life readers were first introduced to the Vaillancourts in a June 1984 article detailing the restoration of their post-and-beam Massachusetts house. That Christmas we showed the house again. Here the dining room was decorated with greenery, fresh fruit, and candlelight. The marbled floor, patterned after one at Van Cortlandt Manor in New York’s Hudson Valley, is Judi’s handiwork.

FAMILY BUSINESS
Today Vaillancourt Folk art is a traditional cottage industry, exactly like those of our European forebears who made the first holiday ornaments. It remains family-owned and run, operated like a Renaissance artist’s studio—the lead artist (Judi) does the design, skilled craftspeople handle the preparation and much of the gilding and painting, then Judi adds her own hand to detailing, finishing, and approving each piece.

When Judi started out, husband Gary turned his back on becoming a wealthy entrepreneur in the then high-flying software industry to help, handling the business aspects of the fledgling family enterprise. Looking back today, he would never go back— his fortune might be smaller, but his life is definitely fuller, rewarding in a different way.

Of course, history can only be known in retrospect—that’s what makes it history. When Judi and Gary began, they didn’t know what lay ahead. neither did we. But Judi’s work had caught our eye in 1984, and we featured it in our December 1984 issue (after we had profiled their house restoration that June), publishing her work for the first time. It was enough to inspire Judi to offer a few pieces at a local crafts show—and, of course, she immediately sold out.

Okay, it wasn’t such a big deal. She made only three pieces. But it was enough to make her think that people actually liked her art. When she kept selling out, it became obvious that people loved her work—so much so that Judi was hard pressed to keep up with demand.

Together with Gary she organized her studio as an actual business and hired some help—at first family members pitched in, then members of the nearby community. In studio fashion, they made thousands of chalkware Santas. Their work became popular enough to catch the eye of importers.

NEW DIRECTION
In the 1990s when newly opened trade with China blossomed, more than a billion hands were ready to make anything americans could—only in much greater quantities and at much lower cost. Like many a folk artist who sold his work only to see it measured to the last millimeter and mass-produced by the millions, the Vaillancourts saw their folk art Santas undercut—they could not even buy plaster for the price of one of the imported pieces.

Gary saw the end coming quickly but didn’t give up. he knew he had one thing that no asian factory could duplicate—Judi’s creativity and collectors who would appreciate it. Instead of trying to compete in volume, the Vaillancourts decided to go back to their roots, making the most decorative, imaginative, and highest quality artwork that Judi could design and create.

That philosophy remains the core of their business. although each piece holds to tradition and is cast in an antique mould, each one is decorated entirely by hand with Judi’s designs and supervision. Some pieces are unique—the only one with a particular design and decoration. Sometimes several are made to the same design.

The largest productions are limited editions made for major retailers and museums such as Colonial Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village, and even those quantities are measured in dozens. Every piece bears the stamp of Judi’s creativity, and all designs are her originals. no matter the quantity in which they are made, each piece is still crafted with the same care.

Because each is a one-of-a-kind, handmade original, it cannot be replaced exactly if an accident happens. But it can be fixed—the Vaillancourts have a “hospital,” actually a service they offer to repair damaged pieces, especially those with sentimental value given for special occasions. They repair broken arms, severed heads, chips, and paint damage with the same artistry that originally went into the piece.

Today Vaillancourt Folk art operates out of an old mill in Sutton, Massachusetts, where they still cast and paint each piece. They also hold annual collectors’ workshops where Judi’s devoted followers get to see not only how pieces are made but also paint one themselves.

A small multipurpose space serves as workshop, lecture hall, and once a year as the setting for a “A Christmas Carol,” a retelling of the Charles Dickens classic by his great-great-grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens.

The Vaillancourts devote another part of their business to their own retail store, through which they sell their own limited edition pieces (they also sell on the Web) as well as folk art from other artisans. In part of their store, it’s always Christmas.

After thirty years in business, the logical question is whether they can continue for another thirty. The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Son Luke is now part of the business, handling the technical side, including the Web. And every piece that they offer shows that there is no end to Judi’s ideas.

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Rosch, T. (Ed.). (Christmas 2014). A Thirty-Year Tradition. Early American Life, 38-43.