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Sculpting holiday magic one figurine at a time

  • Written by Shannon Michael, Features Writer

Dennis BrownPhoto by Shannon Michael. Figurine artist Dennis Brown is shown holding the Santa Claus sculpture he made as this year’s gift he will send to the White House. To see Brown’s work up close, visit his small cottage shop in Country Village.In a tiny workshop the size of a walk-in closet sits an artist working on his craft in Country Village. He is Dennis Brown, a man surrounded by his figurines of Santa, Halloween characters, and more available for sale while he works on his latest creation at the back of the small shop.

It is Brown’s Santa Claus figurines that have made his work so famous that Nancy Reagan and Tipper Gore have purchased his works for gifts, a growing collection of his Santas decorate the White House each holiday season, and even the great fiddle player, Charlie Daniels, has one of his works in his museum in Tennessee.

What makes Brown’s figurines unique is the attention to detail – and frankly a quirkiness – to each sculpture. No two sculptures are alike.

Take for instance the Charlie Daniels Santa he made which is playing a fiddle and wearing a cowboy hat. Or the current sculpture he is working on where polar bears will replace the traditional reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh.

This time of year is the start of Brown’s busy season. He creates about 300 figurines annually, but focuses on special orders for customers who order for holiday gifts between now and Christmas. By the time Thanksgiving arrives, he is putting in 16-hour days to ensure all his holiday orders get filled in time.

His figurines are in such demand for Christmas gifts that he often has to stop accepting orders by Thanksgiving. His figurines range in price from $200 to $2,500.

Brown’s passion for sculpting began in the early seventies when he was 13 years old living in southern California. He just wanted to have some little people to go along with his collection of Matchbox cars. He saved his allowance until he could afford the $2.75 to purchase his first box of Super Sculpey, modeling clay available at any hobby or craft store. That box of clay became his creative outlet. He would spend hours creating new figures, and then squeeze the clay back together to make new ones because he could only afford to buy so much clay on his allowance.

"My lifelong desire had been to work for Disney. But, I can’t draw," Brown said. With practice, he realized he could create Disney character figurines that, if he could sell each one for $2.75, it would give him enough money to buy another box of Super Sculpey. And, thus began his career as an artist.

For many years, his sculpting was done in the evenings and weekends when he wasn’t working his day job. It was when he was set up in a grocery store in Kirkland one weekend about 20 years ago working on his sculptures while offering finished ones for sale, that a chance encounter changed his life. A man came into the store and struck up a conversation with Brown for over two hours while he watched Brown work on a piece.

That man was Gene Freedman, the president and CEO at the time of Enesco, the largest figurine company in the world. Freedman, who worked in Chicago, happened to own a vacation home along the shores of Lake Washington in Kirkland.

At the end of their conversation, Freedman told Brown he wanted to purchase and ship every single completed figurine Brown had in stock, and fly Brown to Chicago to introduce him to Enesco. Brown’s trip to Chicago landed him the opportunity to turn his art into a fulltime career.

For five years, he made original figurines for Enesco, which took those to create 3,500 limited edition reproductions for sale.

His work for Enesco made his name and reputation as a figurine artist grow. He opened a store in Kirkland, which he operated for 16 years. He’s been in his small shop in Country Village for the past three and a half years, and he loves it.

So, how did his work begin to grace the White House?

"I have 18 pieces in the White House, and it all began when Nancy Reagan gave one as a gift to Bruce Babbit, the president’s Interior Secretary," Brown said. He sends a new figurine each year as a gift to the White House.

The figurine he is sending this year took one day to sculpt and one day to paint. The Santa figurine includes a watch. The watch keeps time, mainly because it is that level of detail that appeals to Brown.

His growing fame as an artist has brought new opportunities. Every package of Super Sculpey features a photograph of a Dennis Brown figurine. He also designs for Polyform Clay Company, working on new clay colors. And, Hollywood is interested in his sculpting ability for claymation projects, but he is putting off the demand on his time a project of that scope would take for later down the road.

Most people are happy to be in the holiday spirit for a month or so during the season, but Brown lives with Santa year round. "I love Santa Claus. I believe everyone should believe in him and everything he stands for," he said, referring to Santa’s giving spirit.

Brown, who lives in Carnation, is now looking forward to his favorite day of the year at Country Village. On December 7, it is the annual arrival of Santa Claus and tree lighting ceremony.

For many young children visiting that day, when they see Brown, who sports a beard strikingly similar to Santa’s, they think they are seeing Santa Claus at work in his shop making gifts. But, Brown likes to think of himself more as one of Santa’s helpers creating special gifts to last a lifetime.

Dennis Brown’s shop can be found by using the southern entrance to Country Village and going towards the back of the village. His shop, which looks like a small cottage, is across from the Village Bean Coffee Shop.

For more information, visit www.DennisBrownArtist.com or search for Dennis Brown on Facebook to see photos of his work.

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