December 2018

Vaillancourt Folk Art: crafting holiday memories through chalkware

From the pointed tips of their hats to the snowy toes of their boots, Vaillancourt Folk Art’s charming chalkware Santa Claus collectibles are special. These beautiful, limited-edition Santas have been a popular item in our holiday collection for eight years—so popular that they regularly sell out! But that’s not surprising coming from a company that’s synonymous with Christmas. According to Luke M. Vaillancourt, the family-owned company’s vice president of operations, “Christmas is what we’re known for.”

Vaillancourt Folk Art’s studio and retail store.

The holiday spirit lives year-round at Vaillancourt Folk Art’s 12,000-square-foot studio and retail store, housed in a former 19th century textile mill in Sutton, Massachusetts. Here, alongside a glittering gallery of Christmas trees, decorations, and festive holiday décor of every kind, Vaillancourt’s artists painstakingly craft and hand-paint several thousand chalkware figures annually. It’s a meticulous process—pioneered by founder and chief artist Judi Vaillancourt—that transforms each piece into a small work of art. Prized for their craftsmanship, Vaillancourt’s Santas have become treasured collectibles. “We have generations of families who visit our retail store every year to buy one,” says Luke. “For us, it’s really about starting a tradition.”

Chalkware figures ready to paint in Vaillancourt’s studio.

During the 19th and early 20th century, chalkware figurines were an inexpensive alternative to porcelain. Sculpted from gypsum or plaster of Paris, and painted with watercolors, chalkware was often sold by carnival vendors and commonly referred to as “carnival chalk.”

Each Garnet Hill Santa is a signed exclusive.

Vaillancourt Folk Art reinvented the medium, beginning with three antique German chocolate molds. The molds, gifts from Gary Vaillancourt to Judi, his wife, piqued her curiosity. A fine artist, she was fascinated by the painted chalkware she discovered in the collection of the Museum Fine Arts, Boston. She experimented first with shaping chocolate, then beeswax, and finally liquid chalk, in the molds. Once the chalkware hardened, she applied oil paint to the finished figures. Inspired, Gary and Judi launched Vaillancourt Folk Art from their home in 1984; they poured chalkware in the kitchen, painted the figures in their living room, and ran shipping out of their bedroom (the couple’s parents were the first employees). Nearly 35 years, and two locations later, Vaillancourt Folk Art is still family-run: Judi is lead designer, Gary runs the retail and wholesale business, and Luke, their son, is vice president of operations. And Judi’s collection of vintage chocolate molds, used for all the pieces Vaillancourt produces, has grown to over 3,000!

Judi designs every piece Vaillancourt produces (at least 100 unique designs a year). Inspired by nostalgic memories, folk art and extensive research, Judi also designs custom chalkware figures for retailers like Garnet Hill. If there’s a special design element—a color or theme—that we want in our chalkware pieces, Judi works it into her designs. “There’s always a little detail like a tree, or a sack of presents or candy canes because that really makes it special for our customers,” says Linnea Nemeth, Garnet Hill’s buyer for seasonal home décor. “That’s why Garnet Hill customers race to buy the figures when they’re first introduced—they know we sell out early!”

It takes four to six weeks to produce the limited-edition Garnet Hill Santas.

First, a metal or plastic mold is selected; then, liquid chalk is carefully poured into one mold at a time.

The chalk figures are left in a drying room for up to a week (larger figures can take up to a month to dry!)

Judi paints at least one figure as a guide for the staff artists to follow.

Each figure is then hand-painted by up to three different artists based on the finishes necessary for the design.

Vaillancourt’s retail store is all about Christmas.

If you enjoy Christmas, a stop to Vaillancourt Fine Art is a must. Decorated for the holidays year-round, the retail store is chock full of inspiration and the place to pick out a special ornament, chalkware or even a bottle of the company’s Christmas Wine. Watch the artists working in the studios and explore a small Christmas museum showcasing Judi’s original chalkware designs. There’s also a theater featuring events like the annual one-man-performance of The Christmas Carol, performed by Gerald Dickens, Charles Dickens’ great-great grandson.

There’s no limit to the Vaillancourts’ creativity. “We love what we do,” Luke says. “What better job can you have then helping people make Christmas memories?

Share

One response to “Vaillancourt Folk Art: crafting holiday memories through chalkware”

  1. I love all of your chalk santas. how can i buy a couple? What are your prices?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *