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John Lanouette: Sculpting a local tradition

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John Lanouette: Sculpting a local tradition

Laura Whitaker

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As a journalist, I have too many people giving me unwanted advice for how I should write my stories. It ranges from “make me sound smart” to “let me view and edit your entire piece before submitting it.” Typically I awkwardly nod my head and passively say, “yeah that’s a great idea,” and then throw that suggestion right out the window, but this time it was different.

Mason alumnus John Lanouette received the most sincere reaction from me when he jokingly suggested I introduce him in this profile as “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the figurehead of the Dos Equis beer commercials. Well, he might just be that.

I knew John Lanouette’s house before I actually got to know him. In fact, I can say with almost 100% certainty that the majority of Falls Church feels the same way, too.

His house outdoes any decorative house on the block, it could even be “The Most Interesting House in the World”. Whether it’s Christmas or Halloween, Lanouette’s house is always decked out in lights and color to the most miniscule detail. The combination of cuteness and spookiness on any given holiday calls all Falls Church pedestrians and even drivers to stop by his house to take a closer look.

A north pole themed sculpture garden.

The ‘Polar Acres’ sign inviting citizens of Falls Church to enter and look through Lanouette’s decorations on his yard. (Photo Courtesy of Enchanted Sculptures Facebook page, the name Lanouette acquired for his work).

That’s exactly how I met him. It was a cold December night, just days from Christmas, when I spotted a few spectators circling his yard. Intrigued to see more, I had my friend who was driving us to Seven Corners slow down and pull in closer to look at what the big fuss was all about.

The luster in the fluorescent lights outlined a walkway for me from one extraordinary piece to another. The sign on the doorstep read ‘Polar Acres’ and was complimented with a donation box for Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection association. Everywhere I looked followed a different theme; an igloo with penguins in one corner, the Grinch and some Whos from Whoville in another, a gingerbread house by the trees and Santa and his reindeer next to that.

Those are your typical Christmas decorations; ones you’re likely to find in any yard during the season. The other three quarters of his display were made up of things I’d never seen before.

 

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What makes Lanouette’s presentation unique is the randomness of the subjects and the nature that they are in, such as a buff snowman lifting weights, a cluster of octopi hanging over trees, a group of nutcrackers sleeping on the job, and a variety of life-sized hershey kisses.

Lanouette, whom I thought was just another spectator, approached me with a warm smile and handful of candy canes; at this point, everything in the air screamed Christmas. Surprised to meet the landlord, I asked about his Christmas decoration and where he had gotten so many.

“Thanks, I thought I would do something different this year and made an ‘Under the Sea” exhibit over there,” he said as he pointed at the octopi on the trees.

I didn’t know if I misunderstood him, or if he implied that every decoration in front of me was hand made by him.

“I do a lot of stuff like this. I started out doing my own things, and then I started doing props and displays for other people, like creative advertising,” he said.

I looked around and estimated at least 150 decorative pieces. Each one was elaborate to the smallest detail, from the strokes made on a polar bear to indicate fur, to the exaggerated length in the faries’ eyelashes. How could one person be behind all of this?

Lanouette had always had a knack for art.

“When I was little and there was a toy or stuffed animal that I couldn’t buy, I would try to make it,” he said.

Lanouette’s passion began at the age of ten when reading a World Magazine article about using foam in three-dimensional objects.

“I just thought that was so cool so I had my mom buy me some foam, a hot glue gun and scissors,” he recalled, smiling at the thought of the beginning of his career.

His first project was a foam sandwich, but it was not long until he took up the reins and picked up more advanced ones. At age thirteen, he made his first life sized sculpture, an eight foot nutcracker for the holiday season. About a decade later, Lanouette found himself working at his dream job, creating props and helping with sets and costumes.

“I ended up working for the same place that I was inspired by. The guy thought that was cool, so he went ahead and hired me. There we did stuff for the David Letterman show and The Apprentice, you know, Donald Trump’s old TV show,” Lanouette said.

Today, Lanouette has lines of clients around the holidays; some make special requests for decorations, while others order off his online inventory. He is most busy during the second half of the year, as he begins creating new sculptures and taking out storage as early as September.

I had the luxury of meeting with Lanouette a second, and even a third time, to learn about the creative process.

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“Sorry for the mess,” he said as we walked into his workshop. “Believe it or not, it’s normally a lot worse than this.”

To me, the clutter was beautiful; it showed the thought process and effort that goes into each project. He began to show me around the workshop, pointing at the variety of tools and materials it takes to create a prop and caught me staring at the five foot tank on one side of the room like a lost dog.

He turned it on to show just how strong this compression tank was, and explained its purpose.“This stuff is so strong, I could glue these pieces of foam to my door and it would stay for hours,” he said. “I use many different types of glues, I have a can in the other room that is incredibly good for rubber. It could even fix shoes.”

Without words, I laughed and held up my foot to show the hole at the bottom of my Chuck Taylors and without hesitation, he offered to fix them up for me. I spent the rest of the  two hour long interview with one shoe on.

Lanouette fixes a shoe.

John Lanouette fixing the hole in my shoes. He insisted on doing so after explaining how powerful his glue was. I spent the entire rest of the interview with one shoe on. (Photo by Laura Whitaker).

Mountains of extra strips of material and rolls of foam towered over the floor of his workshop. Garden sculptures such as cardinals and clouds hung from the ceiling on one side of the room to counter the clutter of worn down templates dangling from the other side.  Each corner of the room was occupied by a sculpture, and each wall adorned with sketches, newspaper clippings and lists of ideas for future projects.

“I have had those there for years. I just write an idea down as soon as it comes to my mind and then try picking it up later,” he said while pulling out his torn down sketchbook.

The torn book was overflowing with more photos and sketches, and after noting Wallace and Gromit, Beavis and Butthead and The Hobbit at arms length from me, I was able to understand the sources of his unparalleled art.

“I like the whole whimsical cartoon stuff. What I don’t like is abstract art, like those people who think my art is terrible because it doesn’t have meaning,” he said.

Lanouette raised many eyes in college, being the only person not creating art with meaning behind it. Even his professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), “banned” him from making foam sculptures.

“There wasn’t really anything great there; like they were really into conceptual art,” Lanouette admitted. “They would put a pile of garbage on the floor and cover it with glitter, and they’ll be like ‘what is the meaning behind this’. Like that’s not me. There is no meaning behind my sculptures.”

I understood his struggle when turning to a page he sketched for a pottery class at VCU. One page contained a small cornucopia sketch with a description written below saying, “flowing with different miscellaneous junk to show we have more than we need.”

My favorite one was a small frying pan cooking sunnyside up eggs. “I have no idea what I was thinking,” he laughed. “ The caption just says ‘symbolizing food issue’ but I don’t know how that connects.”

The critiques and looks Lanouette has received over the years have not stopped him from pursuing his passions. He hopes to continue this grind in addition to his job as a physical trainer, and eventually open a seasonal farm for his artwork, similar to Cox Farms.

“I wanted to do something different as opposed to getting my stuff into art galleries,” he explained. “Not everyone wants an eight foot nutcracker, maybe they just don’t go all out for Christmas or or they can’t afford it, but they love it all the same, so [with the farm] they can see my stuff and have fun.”

December 2016 was the sixth Christmas that his house was turned into a Christmas museum, and with the overwhelming ideas and products Lanouette comes up with each year, a farm is only necessary.

He found the inspiration to open a farm after the realizing the overwhelming crowds his ‘Polar Acres’ received during Christmas time. He couldn’t contain his excitement when telling me about the support he has been receiving by the community.

“I get so many people [come to my exhibit] each year,” he blushed. “Hundreds of people tell me that this is their tradition, and their kids never want to leave.”

Lanouette hopes that this tradition continues throughout Falls Church but eventually for the farm to become a new tradition.  His sculptures are a source of stress-relief and self-expression, but after several conversations with him, I could tell it meant much more. The idea of touching people with a little more Christmas spirit and meeting people each year is what ultimately keeps him making more sculptures and helps him live up to being “The Most Amazing Man in the World.”

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John Lanouette: Sculpting a local tradition