SUTTON - If Santa Claus ever decides to move his workshop to New England, he could feel right at home in the blocky granite building in this former mill village.
Vaillancourt Folk Art, the family-run business that occupies a prime spot in the 19th-century structure, features more than 300 ornaments with the figure of Santa (and one of his old-fashioned predecessors, Father Christmas) in its inventory.
It all began innocently, says Luke Vaillancourt, 24, as he stands in the 10,000-square-foot workshop and showroom, which opened in October 2006. All around, trees are decked with ornaments and soft jazz plays on the sound system. "My father bought my mother three old chocolate molds as a gift," he says.
Working first with beeswax and later with a plaster-like material, Judi Vaillancourt, 55, used the molds to cast chalkware figures that she then painted. "She brought a few to a craft fair, and they sold out," says Luke. "She and my father realized they were on to something."
Now the Vaillancourts own about 3,800 antique chocolate and ice cream molds and have scouts out searching for more. "It's one of the largest collections in the country," says Luke. You might find an Easter bunny, Halloween pumpkin, or Valentine's Day heart, but Santa reigns.
On weekdays, visitors can watch through a window as artisans mix the plaster and pour it into the molds. In less than an hour, they crack open the molds, remove the hardened figures, and smooth and sand them before setting them aside to cure for about a week. Vaillancourt's artists work at benches fitted with strong lights. One even works on the weekends so that all visitors can see the craftsmanship that goes into each piece.
"We each do about 40 or 50 pieces a week," says Bill Anderson, who is starting his 11th year at Vaillancourt. The artists work from Judi's original designs, painstakingly detailed on an index card for each figure. To keep things interesting she adds new pieces each year, including 20 Santas for 2007 alone. "The paint is oil," says Anderson, "so we do it in stages. Then next week we start all over again." The figures that leave the painter's benches are bright and shiny. To create instant heirlooms, crackling and antiquing finishes are applied before each completed piece is signed and numbered. Costs are typically $25 to $160.
One corner of the showroom is devoted to a museum that traces the company's history, with displays of some of Judi's early beeswax creations and vignettes of "retired" molds and the chalkware ornaments made from them. "When my mother designs a piece, she considers the history of the mold and the country it came from," says Luke. The company also has a line of glass ornaments - mouth-blown and hand-painted in Poland - based on the collection's most popular figures.
Between the workshop, the museum, and the showroom, a visit to Vaillancourt can take quite a while. For husbands who have tagged along, a couple of couches are tucked among the Christmas trees and free Wi-Fi is available. But it's hard not to get caught up in Judi Vaillancourt's exuberant embrace of the holiday. (She and husband Gary have been known to decorate their home with up to eight trees, some reaching 12 feet tall.)
"I'm starting to have multiple trees now," admits painter Bethany Comeau as she works on signing a batch of figures of Santa riding in a snazzy red-and-white-striped roadster. "It's Judi's influence, I guess."
Patricia Harris and David Lyon, Cambridge-based freelance writers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.