artist in the house

Making your way through the San Pedro Estate in Gran Couva, Trinidad is like driving through the setting of a suburban fairytale. Along tranquil leafy roads, there is a diverse architectural landscape of vast homes set on sprawling, beautifully manicured gardens, each house exuding its own bucolic West Indian charm.

Then, as you drive deeper into this idyllic residential oasis, after a right turn here and a left turn there, you soon discover a property so exceptional in its castle-like grandeur that you can’t help but look to see whether a Rapunzel’s braid is hanging from one of its tall windows, or whether winged nymphs might be flitting through the lush bougainvillea that spills with dazzling fuchsia-and-white effervescence over the side of the house. This is the home of Paul Llanos, his wife Kelly, and their four children. Designed by Llanos himself, it is a jewel of raw rustic elegance, resplendent amidst bountiful tropical flora.

As I learn over the course of my tour and interview with Llanos, an architect and sculptor by profession and co-founder of the company Llanos & Maingot, this impressive homestead is the product of a creative vision, innovative thinking, and sheer determination, the very same qualities that have shaped Llanos’s career, taking him from the oil rigs of eastern Trinidad to the corporate ladder of Central Florida’s architectural world, and finally, right back to his native Trinidad where he has channelled his artistic talents into a thriving niche market for exquisitely detailed handmade sculptures.

For the last 20-odd years, Llanos has proved himself to be a prolific sculptor, despite juggling his artistic pursuits with his architectural practice and family life; in addition to wonderfully imaginative sculptures of traditional Caribbean homes and characters, he has produced a range of beautiful prints and 3-D plaques, all reflecting a deep-rooted love for Trinidadian culture and a powerful artistic ability.

Whether it’s a plaque depicting leisurely coconut vendors on Pigeon Point beach or a figurine of a mud-stained “J’ouvert Man” each piece encapsulates a moving vignette of the Trinbagonian experience, which is likely the reason they have all proved so popular in the local and expatriate West Indian markets.

When looking at Llanos’s artistic evolution and how his works came into being, the best place to start is right at the beginning. Although he spent the first three years of his life in Jamaica, Llanos grew up the middle child of seven siblings in South Trinidad, in an atmosphere infused with art: “My family was always artistic. My mother paints, my grandfather painted, my grandfather on the other side painted. Most of [my siblings] draw and paint, so they all dabble.” As he struggled through what he refers to as a secondary school for “nowhere-ians, the ones who weren’t successful at traditional academics,” it was Llanos’s mother who first took note of his natural talent while they enjoyed the occasional afternoon painting together. However, apart from a very brief stint in England studying commercial art, Llanos never aspired to an artistic career.

Even now, with so many artistic accomplishments embodied by his collections of sculptures, Llanos doesn’t perceive himself as an artist, viewing his sculpting as a “very practical” business-focused endeavour. With so much already on his plate, he is able to indulge his love of sculpting thanks to an ongoing contract with a major foreign company which requires him to provide pre-approved lines of sculptures, prints or plaques each year, to be distributed to the company’s business associates as Christmas gifts.

As a result, Llanos dedicates himself almost entirely to sculpting from October to December in order to meet the contracted quota, and approaches his craft with a very cautious, pragmatic eye: “The honest truth is that if it wasn’t going to sell, it wouldn’t show up. You’d never see a piece of art here that’s not capable of moving somewhere. I’ve always felt slightly guilty about the fact that I think true artists are not looking to sell their work.”

Regardless of the source of his motivation, however, there is no denying that Llanos’s sculptures are a testament to the skill and creativity of a “true artist.” The collections of figurines are particularly captivating, with each detailed sculpture telling its own unique tale.

There is movement, life and vivacity in their shapes, and in each of them, there is a distinct tongue-in-cheek quality: a sculpture of a voluptuous dame lorraine shows the rugged face of a man beneath the traditional costume, his foot busting obscenely out of its sandal, while Llanos’s line of tassa drummers and paranderos are all evidently intoxicated, each appearing to have its own idiosyncratic personality despite being frozen in motion and time. Captured in the expressions of each of his figurines is the story of a genuine Caribbean character, from the hard-working floormen on the oil rigs to the bongo dancer throwing his head back, lost in the raptures of his dance.

When asked how he comes up with such a range of telling facial expressions and poses for the figurines, Llanos explains that he draws on the teasing or “mamaguying” that often characterises Trinidadian humour: “I always like the sort of Trini thing; we are amused by how we tease each other, by how different we are from each other; the fat guys are called fat guy or slim and the tall guy gets called shorty.” This deep-rooted appreciation of his native culture is equally evident in his renowned house sculptures, which have found homes across the globe, thanks to third-party exporters who have spotted the sculptures’ singular charm and international appeal.

Aside from the imaginativeness inherent in his work, what sets Llanos’s sculptures apart is the ingenuity of his patented method for producing them, known as the Llanos Mother Mould Method. The development of this highly efficient production method is what allows Llanos to fulfil his annual contractual obligations along with the demand from local buyers; without it, it’s possible that his sculptures would not have enjoyed the same level of success or recognition, purely because he may not have had the time needed to replicate them on an ongoing basis, or on such a relatively large scale.

In its earliest incarnation, the Mother Mould Method was conceptualised in a modest garage in Orlando, Florida, with the collaboration of his long-time friend and business partner Larry Maingot.
At the time, Llanos was solely dedicated to architecture, but drawing on his previous experience as a drilling fluids engineer, he developed a patent of balanced fluids which eventually resulted in the company Llanos & Maingot’s very first piece: “My first house was this ugly little dog of a house with a mango tree, and I showed Larry and I said, Look! We have it. We’re onto something!’ ”

Since those early days, the Mother Mould Method and Llanos’s sculpting and moulding techniques have continually evolved, becoming increasingly sophisticated and efficient to cater to heightened demand. With a similarly technical approach, he prepares for each sculpture with meticulous precision to achieve such flawless detail. “The houses went through a whole process of making little architectural plans and being architecturally accurate, then printing out little blueprints,” while for the figurines, he “did a lot of proportion studies and [studies of] the muscles and bone structure.”

The painstaking intricacy of his work, particularly of his popular miniature houses, is what suffuses his sculptures with such authenticity. Sculpted with subtractive and additive sculpting techniques, using a resin base and Cx5 (a premium sculpting material that can be easily manipulated when warm), each of Llanos’s miniature houses has an artisanal, custom-made feel, showcasing the architectural richness of Trinidad, Tobago and Barbados. When asked why he is so steadfastly drawn to Trinidadian and West Indian themes for the full spectrum of his work, Llanos puts it down to simply being more in sync with local culture than anything else: “We’re attracted to the things we’re in touch with; we are motivated and moved by them. I don’t know how to move someone other than to tap into their fond memories, and so what we’re selling is a fond memory, something someone has in their past. Our houses were very much like that. We’re selling nostalgia.”

Indeed, whether adorning a mantle over a cosy burning fireplace or sitting in a porch surrounded by breeze-ruffled palm trees, Llanos’s sculptures evoke all of the quaint sentimentality of the classic Caribbean, as reminiscent of traditional West Indian life as sipping a cold scotch and coconut water or swaying to the sweet melodies of the Mighty Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah.”

As his children grow older and he contemplates retiring from architecture, Llanos looks forward to dedicating himself to sculpting full-time. He has already achieved so much, in production innovation and the creativity of his lines; we can only wait with bated breath to see how much further he will take us down memory lane, with each sculpture, print and plaque inviting us to remember a simpler time in our vibrant tropical isles.