As night falls in early December, the Northside Historic District in Opelika is transformed into a holiday wonderland, as porches are spotlighted with scenes of Christmas past amid surrounding historic homes. While jovial Santas, angels, wise men and other papier mache figures create stunning vignettes at the Victorian Front Porch Tour, artist DiAnn Cullinan is working behind the scenes to assure the 90-plus figures appear perfect.
Cullinan is now in charge of all the artistic aspects of the event after seven years as chairman of the tour. “Mrs. Santa Claus fell off the porch last year and smashed her face,” she says. “Mrs. Claus will be repaired and ready for the tour this year.
“Sometimes the figures are out in bad weather,” she adds, “or they get bumped, and the nose gets broken.” While Cullinan works on the figures at the warehouse where they are stored, she takes the most damaged ones to her workshop at home, which makes it easier for repairs.
The artist became interested in papier mache after moving to Opelika from Australia. She works year round to get ready for the Christmas season. Along with preparing the figures for the tour, she crafts an assortment of Christmas figures in papier mache from eight inches tall to full size for her business, Highpoint Creations.
Cullinan grew up in Wisconsin where her mother was a school teacher and taught art on the radio. While she had little interest in art growing up, Cullinan began painting after getting married. She met her husband, Harry, who is from New York, when he was working with the Institute of Paper Chemistry.
They moved to Australia with their young son, Kevin, for Harry to open an institute there. When Kevin turned 5, the Culllinans decided they wanted him to grow up in America.
They moved to Opelika in 1991 when Harry accepted a position as director of the Pulp and Paper Research Center at Auburn University.
Cullinan continued her painting after moving to Opelika and held art shows. She began working with gourds and found she could embellish them with papier mache. Plain gourds were transformed into artistic Santas.
She went to work with papier mache artist Jan Jones at her shop in downtown Opelika. Jan had fashioned the life-sized Christmas figures displayed in the Victorian Front Porch Tour. When Jan moved from the area in the early 2000s, she recommended Cullinan as her replacement to care for the figures.
Jan had been chairman of the tour as well. When she moved, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller worked with the neighborhood to keep the popular tour going. Jill Bonneau volunteered as the chairman.
When Bonneau moved, Cullinan took over as chairman. After seven years, she stepped down, and Roger Bell became chairman. Cullinan continued as artistic director.
“I like the effect I can get with the papier mache,” Cullinan says. “I like to find old pieces and add to them.”
For the life-sized figures, her husband helps. In most cases the body is generally made with PVC pipes. The head and hands are formed of clay. The body is built with a lot of paper or foil and then wrapped with paper strips.
The strips of paper are dipped in a glue solution before being applied. When she was frustrated trying to get the paper to stick properly, her husband, who is a chemical engineer, came up with a formula for boiling the paper. His method allows her to give a finer appearance to the figures.
“It is almost like an assembly line,” she says. “I work on others during the drying time. I never make one at a time.”
Cullinan creates a variety of papier mache figures, including Santas, snowmen and angels for Christmas, as well as lambs and rabbits in the spring. During the Christmas season, her figures are available at The Gallery in downtown Opelika and the Heritage House Bed and Breakfast. She also has a booth at Angel’s Antiques.
For the tour, Cullinan created the life-size three wise men at the corner of Dr. and Mrs. Peter Purves’s home. Lynn Carter and Jane Suhling, who both live in the Historic District, assisted in creating the figures.
The annual Victorian Front Porch Tour is held in early December starting on Wednesday night with the driving tour. Friday night is Christmas in a Railroad Town with special events in downtown Opelika.
On Saturday nights, the streets are closed to traffic for the walking tour throughout the neighborhood. Mayor and Mrs. Gary Fuller kick off the evening’s festivities by lighting the Christmas tree at the entrance. The event is free.
The Opelika Historic Preservation Society serves wassail and cookies at the Brownfield House, while Trinity United Methodist Church offers hot chocolate and cookies. Refreshments are available without charge.
Cullinan encourages everyone to dress in vintage clothing for the walking tour. “If they don’t have the clothing,” she says, “the neighborhood has a collection of vintage clothing at their warehouse that can be borrowed. Dressing up makes it a festive evening to tour the neighborhood, enjoying the decorated porches and sipping wassail or hot chocolate.
“I feel blessed to be a part of it,” Cullinan adds. “Opelika is a great place. You almost want to keep it hidden so it doesn’t get too big. It is a wonderful community.”
This year’s Victorian Front Porch Tour will be held Wed, Dec. 6 through Sunday, Dec. 10 in the Northside Historic District, beginning on North 8th Street in Opelika. Christmas in a Railroad Town is Friday, Dec.8, and the walking tour is Saturday, Dec.9.