Guy Louis-XVI lives in a model world, so why is the
real world beating a path to his door?
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
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
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,"
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
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
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.