Stayin' alive

Mar 10, 2010 at 12:00 am

Louie Pacini's business is as fragile as the brittle creations he makes.

He's a craftsman whose plaster statues have been crowded out of the marketplace by cheap imitations from China. His health is faltering, tormented by persistent cancer. His customers have moved away, taking with them their patronage. And his employees were let go, one by one, as people stopped buying the delicate little things he makes.

"Right now, it's just down to me," he says. He owns Sam Pacini Statues on Van Dyke, just south of Eight Mile. "The only reason I survive is I'm by myself; the building is paid for; I got no overhead, but even now it's a struggle to even stay in business."

His species is endangered — a Michigan manufacturer engaged in an obscure art inside a little shop in a Detroit neighborhood. "You can drive right by and you don't even know we're here," he says. 

But he still comes to work every day, locks the door behind him, and heads back to his workshop, where he molds wet plaster into vases, planters, statues and figurines, using a technique that goes back centuries.

His finished creations line long aisles of shelves in his shop, streaming from one end of the store to the other by the hundreds. Almost all of them are soft white and delicate, giving them a ghostly look in the dim light. Unfinished simple frogs and pigs share shelf space with traditional statues of Catholic saints whose detailed faces are etched with agonized or beatific expressions.

In the old days, he had to hustle to compete with others like him who carried on this tradition. Now there are fewer craftsmen and fewer customers. 

"There's really nobody in the state doing this now, but back when we took over there were shops all over the place," he says. "We're the only ones in Michigan doing this now."

Pacini's family
came to Detroit by way of Chicago from Lucca, Italy, a little town famous for its plaster figurines. There's even a museum there dedicated to the long history of its craftsmen.

"Everybody there pretty much was in this type of business, the statue business," Pacini says. His voice still hints at the accent he's left with from his first eight years in Italy. "My mom went back there a few years ago and said there's still shops putting the stuff outside to dry, letting it air dry."

The town craftsmen began emigrating a couple hundred years ago; some eventually wound up in the American Midwest, a few made their way to Detroit, and one family brought the tradition to the little shop on Van Dyke.

The store was named after his uncle. And his dad. Amazingly, they had the same first and last names, despite being unrelated, at least until one Sam Pacini married into a family that happened to have another Sam Pacini. The uncle who founded the store was Louie's mother's brother.

"Coincidence," he says. "Pacini is, in our part of the town we came from, like Johnson or Smith is here." 

Sam Pacini the uncle died in 1978, and left the business to Sam Pacini the father. No name change was necessary. 

"At the time, we were living in Chicago," Pacini says. "My dad actually did this type of work in Chicago, and when my uncle passed away he wasn't married or anything, so we pretty much inherited the business, and that's when we moved here."

The family, like most in Lucca, had its own way of making plaster. "Our technique, nobody does it the way we do it," he says. "I learned everything about it from my dad. I learned how to make little stuff, then from there I graduated to the bigger pieces, and then I was eventually able to do everything."

Pacini's dad died not long after moving to Detroit, leaving his son in charge. His mom would help out sometimes, but she was getting older and soon stopped coming around. It became his shop.

Back then, three decades ago, business was booming. "We were doing pretty good with it for a little place like this," he says. On some days he'd have eight employees working at once in the back. He would hire the kids from the shop's crime-ridden neighborhood and teach them the craft.

"I hired all the degenerates," he says, half-joking. "People don't realize, even a little place like us, I hired people that nobody else was going to hire. And you need that, especially in the city. And we've lost so many of the small businesses that would do that."

There were benefits to hiring locally — when crime skyrocketed in the area and break-ins started happening at the shop, his employees would use their street connections to find out who did it and send a message, verbal or otherwise, that the store was off-limits.

"The guys who used to work for me were probably some of the worst guys in the neighborhood, so actually they kind of watched out for me," he says.

Despite their rough lifestyle, the kids would always show up for work on time, Pacini notes. One stands out in his mind. 

"One time he came in, he got shot in the hand; he had blood coming out the hand a little bit and he was still coming to work. Another time he got stabbed in the back and he didn't even tell us. And he was working, and I could tell he was in pain. He had a cut this big," he says, holding his hands about a foot apart. "Somebody sliced him because he sold some crackhead some soap and they cut him."

But then the economy soured, cheap statues from places like China poured in, business dried up, and employees had to be let go. Pacini got thyroid cancer, closed the shop while he sought treatment, and when he came back his customers had moved on. 

"The health issue set me back a little bit, but what can you do? That stuff happens. But everything goes in cycles. That's why I figure if we can stick this out there's always something that comes along." He still always says "we" out of habit when speaking of the shop, even though he's the only one here now.

The walls of
the workshop are splattered with plaster. Thick drops of it cake the wood benches where the finished statues are left to dry. Years of work have left their mark in the shop, one drop at a time, one day at a time. The workshop is almost like an artwork in itself.

Making a statue takes time. Pacini starts by mixing water with fine white plaster powder. The mixture is poured into a latex-coated mold, then poured back out, leaving a paper-thin coating. Once that dries, he does it again. And again. He repeats the process until there's a quarter-inch thick layer inside, brittle and thin but strong. The statues are hollow, and this is how they are made, from the outside in. 

Finally, the mold is pulled away and the plaster piece is left to dry.

These days he sells a handful at a time, mostly to hobbyists or gift shops that keep a few of the figurines in stock. Some teachers buy them for the kids in their class to paint. A brush and some paints cost only a few dollars. The kids love them, he says. It's an easy way for them to create something artistic.

When he became ill a few years back, he put a "For Sale" sign in the front window. Predictably, on a street where empty buildings have gone unused for decades, there have been no inquiries. "I'm going to take it down," he says. "Ain't nothing going to happen."

His craft survived a trip across the ocean, the deaths of two owners, a bad economy, a brutal illness, cheap imitations of his work and changing decorative tastes. Yet it stays alive because he wills it to, because he's never done anything else, but mostly because he still loves making those little statues. This craft is his life.

"I'm gonna be 49 years old, so it's like, 'What am I gonna do now?'" he wonders in those moments when he thinks of giving up and closing for good. "This is what I know. This is all I know." 

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]