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Canada news, Ottawa Citizen

A brush with reality
Guy Louis-XVI lives in a model world, so why is the real world beating a path to his door?
Susan Lightstone
Citizen Special

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Behind the front door of the very normal house in the perfectly ordinary Ottawa suburb of Beacon Hill, things start to get a little weird.

It isn't immediately apparent when Guy and Denise Louis-XVI invite you into their home. You automatically shuck off your shoes -- the house is immaculate.

"Come on in and meet the family," Guy will say. "I'll introduce you to James first."

Trailing after him, you turn a corner into the family room to discover a workman -- a big man in full work gear, wearing a hard hat and gently cradling a cloth doll. After a quick look, you jump. James is not human but rather remarkably, astonishingly human looking.

Guy watches your reaction. He's playing with your head, gauging his own skill by assessing how long it takes you to figure out that James N. Manekin -- Guy's name for his creation -- isn't real. Guy creates mannequins -- and playing with heads is an integral part of his work.

"Tweak his nose," Guy says next. You reach out and pinch James's nose. Guy's talent at reproducing the human form -- in scientific combinations of silicone and resins -- is so eerily perfect, you'll be freaked out by the unexpectedly soft, gummy, slightly warm feel of the silicone face.

If there's one thing Guy Louis-XVI knows -- really understands -- it's that things are not always as they appear. Guy, for example, doesn't look the role of a mannequin maker. If he were to cast himself as one of his own mannequins, he says he might play the role of a burly, no-nonsense police officer. In fact, in one of his many professional incarnations, he's played the role in several feature films.

Guy, 48, came to the mannequin profession in his early 40s. He is self-taught. As tells the story, he was fated to become a mannequinist. "Everything that I've learned in my whole life, since I was a little child, has come to this," he says, gesturing toward James. "It's been a long path."

Since the mid-1990s, Guy has created more than 90 mannequins. His work is on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Canadian War Museum, and historic sites across Canada and the United States.

Before acquiring Guy's creations, the War Museum's mannequins "were nothing more than clotheshorses for uniforms -- think department store mannequins," says Mark Reid, exhibitions project manager at the Museum. Reid, who estimates the museum has more than 20 of Guy's mannequins, says Guy possesses a strong interpretative vision. "If we have four square feet in which to put a mannequin wearing a costume, he can add so much about the type of person (wearing the uniform), the emotions, a sensitivity for the historical situation ... He's more than a technician, he is an artist."

Today more than 80 per cent of Guy's clients, including private collectors and museums, are located in the United States. All, discovered him on the Internet. He is booked for months and people line up to purchase a piece of his reality.

He's regularly asked to create likenesses of his clients themselves, their loved ones or their fantasy friends and idols. He recently created a rendition of a glamorous, youthful Hedy Lamarr for a private collector in Illinois. A 61-year-old client in Massachusetts wanted a mannequin of himself at 13 -- eternally bright-eyed and smooth-skinned.

To make those perfect faces, he begins with one of two processes. He often sculpts the head from photos and creates a mold from the sculpture. He also "live casts," beginning by covering a real person's head -- or full body -- in dental alginate (used for dental casts) and then swathing the head in plaster bandages. Once dried, the impression forms the mold. From the mold, Guy then builds the mannequin using a variety of products, including silicone and glass fiber-reinforced plaster.

Typically, a museum seeking a highly realistic mannequin opts for a head finished in silicone or a resin-plaster composite, resin hands and a posable body crafted from a lightweight steel frame covered with foam, Fiberfil and a soft, stretchable cotton fabric. The final product -- a Father of Confederation or a coureur de bois for example -- weighs approximately 13 kilograms and could cost from $4,000 to $25,000 depending on the detail required.

To fill a recent order from Nebraska, he began by sculpting the face of Johnny Carson as we knew him on the Tonight Show. Guy's creation, nattily turned out in one of Carson's own Italian suits, is now part of an exhibit at the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Carson's hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. Guy was lucky -- it only took two test runs for him to get that familiar, smiling silicone face "just right."

Guy is a perfectionist, constantly "reading" faces, searching for the right look to live-cast for his projects.

"I don't want a stereotype. I want a typical look. If I'm asked to make a Chinese laundryman, I'm not going to use a Korean. If I'm asked to create an East German border guard, I'm going to find someone of German descent," he says.

His fierce-faced East German border guard, dressed in Cold War uniform, regularly threatens visitors to the War Museum.

"The figure is appropriate for that time and setting. He imparts a sense of menace," says Mark Reid. You know you're not going to cross that border. That emotional response is what makes the mannequin an essential element of the museum's educational function. Guy's mannequins have the ability to open a doorway to emotion, says Reid, and that's an effective teaching tool.

Stick around and you might become one of Guy's subjects. He regularly invites friends, family and people he encounters on the street to audition for roles. A clerk at an east-end Canadian Tire store, for example, became the face of a soldier from a South Carolina regiment in the Revolutionary War.

John Cabot proved to be a recent challenge. No portraits exist of the Venetian explorer and navigator. When Guy was commissioned to create a mannequin of Cabot, he searched until he discovered an Ottawa man in his late 30s who had emigrated from Italy two decades earlier. With his high cheekbones, dark eyes and aquiline nose, the man's look was right -- but his skin was too young and unweathered to mimic that of the middle-aged. seafaring Cabot.

Guy began by "aging" the man's skin with latex before live casting his head. A plaster-headed John Cabot now gazes steadily and benignly at streams of visitors to the Ryan Premises, a National Historic Site in Bonavista, Newfoundland.

Guy's favorite pieces, however, are not of the famous but the familiar. "The most important pieces I've ever made are of my family," Guy says. "I've immortalized them."

He's currently working on a silicone head of his stepdaughter Stephanie for a collector in New Jersey. Weeks of work and two prototypes (the skin on the first was too ruddy, the silicone blistered on the second) have produced a perfect, ultra-lifelike reproduction of the pretty teenager's face. "This will be here when we're gone," says Guy, holding Stephanie's framed silicone head in his hands.

Guy has finally taken to calling himself an artist. "I never saw myself as being artsy-fartsy," he says.

Struggling to read, young Guy was sent to a special school for children with learning difficulties in his hometown of Rockland. There, he learned to become a welder.

He'd always loved to draw and sketch -- a talent he inherited from his grandfather, an expert wood carver. In fact, he changed his surname from Louis-Seize to Louis-XVI as a tribute to the grandfather who signed his works using numerals. At 13, Guy, building on his love of drawing, started his first career as a sign painter. By 15, he was working full-time.

In 1977, he gave the sign-painting business to his brother and opened an auto body shop. Then came a five-year stint painting aircraft instruments. In the late 1980s, encouraged by a sister who was teaching first-aid courses and needed help simulating injuries including broken bones and gashes, he started dabbling in special effects makeup.

In 1993, encouraged by his wife Denise, Guy took a makeup artistry course as a way of entering the special effects field. That led to work on films and commercials. "I was the guy they'd call when they needed a throat slash or a kidney surgery," he says.

The makeup course also led to gig of some 3,000 customer makeovers for a Brantford-based photography studio. "That was the best thing I ever did," says Guy. "I got to look at and analyze people. I was able to look at facial features up close -- the skin and the way it folds, the color of the eyes."

In the mid-1990s, an Ottawa-based magician friend, Elliott Smith, asked Guy if he could make a mannequin for a show sponsored by a company that manufactured exhibits for museums. Elliott had originally met "Guy-Zoo," Guy's face-painting clown alter ego, while Guy was working at a corporate function.

Attracted by the perfect quality of Guy's work, Elliott saw potential in the man he calls "a bit obsessive compulsive. I could see he liked to bring out the awe in people and get them asking: 'How did you do that?'" says Elliott. "I could see there was so much more he could be doing."

Assembling all the skills he'd acquired over a lifetime, Guy took up Elliott's challenge and built a mannequin of a clown, based on Denise's features. Mark Reid of the Canadian War Museum saw that mannequin, was impressed and began ordering mannequins from Guy. "I was off to the races," Guy says. "I was pushed along the way by people I've met who saw something in me that I never saw. But I can trace everything I do, see and know to a specific point in my early life."

Now, with a steady stable of clients, he's creating artworks based on the mannequin concept -- very real bits of the human form, as he interprets it and reproduces it. "I mean to challenge all the senses," he says.

If you're lucky, Guy will continue the tour of his home, leading you into his workroom. Again, Guy will be watching you, reading your reactions and measuring his success at altering your reality. What will attract your eye? The human heart on the counter, the freshly gutted salmon hanging from the rafters or, maybe, the severed hand on the chair where you're to sit?

When you pick up the hand, you'll get a quick synopsis of why he often makes the extremities of his mannequins from resin (cheaper than silicone, easy to work with and very durable). Heads are another story. His most realistic mannequins sport faces of silicone -- the same product used to make gaskets for the space shuttle and to waterproof your bathtub. In fact, he can finish the entire mannequin -- head and body -- with silicone. ("NOT an adult doll" reads the description of the all-silicone mannequin on Guy's Web site, providing some idea of the strange requests Guy receives.)

Wax-headed mannequins -- like those made famous by Madame Tussaud -- can't come close to the realism of Guy's products. It all comes down to painting. Although wax is tinted to mimic skin, the facial features on Tussaud-style mannequins are painted on the outside of the head. Silicone, on the other hand, is translucent by nature and pigmented and laid down in layers. Typically, seven layers of silicone -- each layer painstakingly painted from the inside out -- make a face.

"You lay your colors inside the mold and build up the skin, layer by layer," explains Guy. "It gives a depth of color, like human skin. A vein is painted inside the skin, where it's supposed to be -- not painted on the outside."

That face comes to life when Guy sets in a pair of his handmade eyes. His specialty, Guy fiddled with the process for two years until he was satisfied with his method and product. "And I'm still working on the damn things," he mutters. Reality, it appears, is in the details.

It could sound gruesome, but in this snug, well-organized room, Guy makes the story of creating body parts sound so normal, so logical.

Susan Lightstone is an Ottawa writer.

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