NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drag artist, New Orleans Drag Workshop founder, pianist, vocalist, comedic storyteller and documentary star.
Vincent DeFonte's resume reads like a divine fairy tale about a talented tile tradesman from San Francisco who followed his artistic bent to New Orleans who finally, at 50, found success as both Vinsantos, a solo cabaret act, and the owner of a French Quarter art gallery.
"Becoming a doll maker was purely a happy accident for me," said DeFonte of his latest medium that's inspiring a voracious following at Galerie Vinsantos, at 811 Royal St. "My dolls are typically hyper-glamorous and they're based on my other career, being a drag artist and a musician. There's lots of glitz and glamor. The dolls' expressions carry a lot of emotion, too. They're a little bit desperate, but they also have attitude."
DeFonte's dolls are dipped in debauched decadence and drip in vintage broaches, mesh lariats, rhinestones and tarnished pearls. He sculpts each polymer clay face from scratch and adorns the forms with an excess of carnivalesque elements.
DeFonte's dames range from $1,200 to $5,500.
The Sea Priestess is his leitmotif, a seductive siren with sensual allure who's DeFonte's protector of good taste.
"She came to life when I was working at the French Market out of my disdain for all the plastic crap that people come from all over the world to buy," mused DeFonte. "She's my gatekeeper of glamor and all things beautiful."
Touro Infirmary radiologist and French Quarter resident Drew Oncale, 34, has collected nine of DeFonte's dolls.
"I like to buy original works by New Orleans artists, and when I saw the dolls at Galerie Vinsantos they all had individual personalities," said Oncale. "People who come over to my house gravitate towards them and are intrigued as well. They're attracted to their faces and their eyes and the detail in the jewelry. They're great conversation pieces."
Oncale has one coveted Sea Priestess in his collection and said he expects all his DeFontes to appreciate in value.
"As I bought the dolls I became friends with Vincent and even got the opportunity to see him perform in drag as Vinsantos where you see a darker side," said Oncale. "With the dolls, his art and vision combine and there's an element of darkness in each doll that mirrors his stage performance."
When DeFonte discovered the burlesque and cabaret scene of the San Francisco underground drag performance circuit, he was able to develop his drag talents as Vinsantos, but, as Vincent, he worked a day job as the owner of a high-end tile company, where he produced large scale commercial projects and specialized in creating mosaic installations for tony customers in the Bay Area. It helped him hone his eye for composition and cultivate skills to construct intricate artwork.
"I never thought it was possible to support a family being a full-time artist," said DeFonte. "When raising my son Christian, who's now 28, and working in San Francisco, which is prohibitively expensive, my art was always more of a hobby."
DeFonte said he and his husband of 21 years, Gregory Gajus, moved to New Orleans from California in 2010 to escape the economic onus. He said he had no particular plan in place, except to reinvent himself.
"Post-Hurricane Katrina things were incredibly cheap in New Orleans," said DeFonte, "and when the cost of living in a city is that low a lot of artists flock there so I wanted to be a part of an up and coming scene, a part of a Renaissance, so it was really good timing for me."
DeFonte first peddled his wares from his small import business at the open-air French Market before creating his own mosaic plaques selling them to tourists for $40 to $60 apiece. His art evolved when he inserted characters into his work and started to embellish them with "a little bling and a little flair."
"I would find pieces of shiny broken jewelry, pieces of hardware and anything that looked old that had some patina to it," he said. "So the work became much more assemblage based. I was trying to make art that was geared towards the tourists, but once I started to make something that was just my own, that's when people started to respond and take it seriously."
DeFonte's art became more self-indulgent after meeting artist Sheri DeBow who sculpted doll faces out of polymer clay. DeFonte said he fell in love with her medium and method and found his own way to work the same materials with original techniques and the help of a toaster oven.
"It's a low-temperature clay, so I can literally make you a doll and make you toast at the same time," said DeFonte. "But my 'aha' moment that changed everything came the day after I did a drag show. My make-up was sprawled all over my desk along with my doll making supplies. I was using more traditional materials then, like acrylic paints, to paint the dolls' faces. But when I saw a particular eye shadow and applied it to the polymer, that's when my dolls really came to life with drag queen sparkle."
DeFonte has stockpiled a miscellany of materials from trinkets to tchotchkes over the years thanks to multiple thrift store road trips along the Gulf Coast. It's from this wealth of adornment he decks out his dolls with a nod to the whimsy and the sophistication of Art Deco artist Erté.
"What I try not to do is think about it too much," he said. "I treat dressing the form as fashion design using unconventional materials. I've watched a lot of Project Runway."
"Vincent collects vintage jewelry and he wears vintage clothing during his drag performances," said collector Oncale. "Each doll seems to possess an element of him. You can tell he picks specific pieces to use that accentuate each doll the best."
"Sometimes there's a piece of jewelry in there that's worth more than the doll itself," said DeFonte. "Every once in a while my husband starts picking pieces out of my cases and asks if it's real silver or gold or diamonds. I tell him I don't care, I just want what's best for the doll."
DeFonte lays out his ornamentation without commitment. He likens his process to a puzzle waiting to see what fits, what's natural and what flows. He then uses a glue gun on his glamor girls to set things in place, an E6000 glue to add longevity and a final acrylic clear coat to meld his art into one cohesive unit.
"It's unbelievable to me that as an artist starting out at the French Market selling little things for $40 that I would ever sell anything for even a $1,000 much less $5,000 and have my own gallery space. This was never part of my plan."
Nor was is his next breakthrough that led to a 50 percent shift in his business.
Susan Wellford, 51, lost her husband, Philip Wellford, at the age of 58 to early-onset Alzheimer's in 2012. He was a prolific juggler and comedian who performed on the same stages as Sammy Davis. Jr., Jay Leno, Howie Mandel, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams and Robin Williams to name a few. In 2013, Susan took a pilgrimage from her home outside Kansas City, Kansas, to New Orleans where she and Philip loved to explore together. On that trip, she found DeFonte by chance, or by fate, and commissioned his first memorial piece.
"Meeting Vincent was magical," said Wellford. "I was drawn to his dolls, compelled by them, and thought maybe he could create a doll of my late husband."
Wellford sent DeFonte a box of her husband's possessions including juggling pins, a unicycle seat, a piece of copper from the threshold of the Wellford's first home, a two of hearts playing card, a wedding ring and even a vial of Philip's ashes.
"It's amazing," said Wellford of the nearly three-foot-tall, two-foot-wide presentation piece now mounted in her dining room. "I was totally blown away. It's so personal and so special. I started crying when I saw it. It's just an incredible piece of art."
Wellford said DeFonte even incorporated the little hand mirror Philip looked into before each performance. It's positioned right behind the doll's head so you can see yourself in its reflection.
"The doll's big eyes are looking right into your soul, and it's haunting but hopeful," she said. "It's priceless to me and worthy of a museum."
"What I didn't realize at that time was how much a main staple of my career that type of work would become," said DeFonte of the emotional Wellford commission. "I can take your memories, sit with them and use the pieces in my work. I feel a huge sense of responsibility, but it challenges me more as an artist."
DeFonte now spends about half of his time on commissioned pieces, but they aren't all based on death or memorials.
"People come to me with the most bizarre requests," said DeFonte, who recently finished a commission of author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson complete with aviator sunglasses, pistols and multiple cigarettes. "I work in the drag and burlesque industry so lots of people like myself who are attached to their stage personas ask me to make dolls of themselves. It's super fun for me to try to figure out how to take their memorabilia and my found objects and bring them to life and make them work. The stranger the challenge the better."
DeFonte revels in the appeal of his pin-ups but makes it clear they are precious and should be handled with respect, not to played with or touched, but kept in their individually-themed hard cases mounted to walls.
When displayed, his dolls' signature style sings. DeFonte uses real cosmetics on their faces and piano hammers and antique bobbins from old looms as legs that add movement to the dolls. Their shoes also tell a New Orleans story.
"It was my Cinderella moment," said DeFonte. "I went to a Muses Mardi Gras parade where the theme is always about shoes, and I got one of those bracelets with dozens of little plastic shoes on it. At around the same time, I made this really glamorous doll that had legs and she needed shoes. I picked up that Muses bracelet, took two of the shoes, put them on the doll and they just fit like a glove. And that's all I've used ever since.
"I'm very thankful to be able to do this for a living," said DeFonte. "I have my doll career, my drag career, my New Orleans Drag Workshop that I founded, and my gallery that features my work and the work of a dozen other artists. I'm writing a screenplay about my Sea Priestess for a film, and one day I want to partner with a jewelry house like Bulgari or Cartier and incorporate their jewelry into my designs to create an ad campaign featuring my dolls."
There's no doubt DeFonte's star is rising as he will soon be the focus of a feature-length documentary called "Last Dance" by French film director Coline Albert.
"It's about my life as an artist and juggling all the different art forms that I do," said DeFonte. "It tries to make sense of who I am and who I want to be when I grow up. And I don't think either of us found the answer to that in the process of shooting this film. Coline is taking nearly two years of footage and weaving a story out of it. It's an inside look at what it means to be a working-class artist and the struggles and accomplishments that go along with that and how to keep it all rolling at the same time. When I saw the trailer I was on the edge of my seat because I still don't know what happens at the end."
Information from: BIZ New Orleans, http://www.bizneworleans.com/