Thomas Canuelas’ dioramas expose details in miniature | West Orange Times & Observer

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Thomas Canuelas owned a thriving multimedia production studio until serious illness and a long stay in hospital forced him to give up that career and forge a new path.

When he returned home from his long stay in hospital, he could barely walk and had to rely on a wheelchair if he walked any distance. Unable to leave his Winter Garden home during the pandemic, Canuelas turned to 3D art to fill his days and satisfy his urge to create.

“It completely changed my whole life,” he said. “Being at home and unable to work, I went through this stressful period. I’ve worked all my life, and what am I going to do now? I had to close TC (Graphics) because I couldn’t run it anymore. After all that, I had to find something to keep my mind working. I couldn’t use my legs, but my hands were still good, so I started using the foam as a piece of art, and that’s how I got the first one. It went from there and I started using the Zbrush application program to do 3D art.

Over the past three years, he has built detailed dioramas featuring television and film characters and actors. When comic book writer and editor Stan Lee died in 2018, Canuelas wanted to memorialize him.

“He was such a big (presence) in my life,” he said. “I grew up reading the comics. …I wanted to do something for me to remember him by. I started with the figurine, and I made the desk, it’s wooden, handmade hand. … I started putting up posters on the wall. I took pictures of him with his wife and with the president and made sure they were in the diorama. There’s a picture of all the superheroes framed on the wall.

He said he watched old movies and videos to make sure he included all the movies. The scene features a wooden desk he made from scratch; an assortment of office items such as a cup of coffee, a box of donuts, a pencil holder, a stack of comic books and two laptops; a miniature wall-mounted television that broadcasts real excerpts from interviews; photos of Lee with his wife and with the president; and young and old versions of Lee.

His latest project is a true labor of love – a diorama featuring all the movies and TV shows Robin Williams has appeared in. It took him two months of research and a year to complete.

“Robin Williams is actually my favorite because I love the person, I grew up with him, I took it badly when he died,” Canuelas said. “It’s hard to watch someone you grew up with die.”

The finished product is like an IMDb visual listing of Williams’ work: “Mork & Mindy,” “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Hello, Vietnam”, “One Hour Photo”, “Night at the Museum”, “Happy Feet”, “Robots”, “AI Artificial Intelligence”, “Flubber”, “Jumanji”, The Birdcage “, “Aladdin” and more.

A client commissioned a scene from the TV show “Bewitched”, so he recreated a living room scene. Another client asked for “Gilligan’s Island,” and he adds the entire cast, plus the cabin, rowboat, and hammocks.

One of his commissioned pieces was a bit more personal, he said. A family wanted to memorialize a deceased loved one, so Canuelas made a shrine that included a living room with a figure of the man wearing a small shirt cut from one of the family member’s shirts and holding his actual photo. An urn on the shelf contained his actual ashes, Canuelas said.

He has a seamstress who makes the little clothes for his projects.

Canuelas estimates that he created nearly 65 dioramas. This includes four similar versions of the Stan Lee project due to repeated requests.

He said someone once offered him nearly $2,400 for his original Stan Lee diorama, but Canuelas said he wouldn’t part with it.

“It’s not the money; it’s the love I put into it,” he said. “It’s a hobby; it’s something that I really, really love to do.

WORK IN PROGRESS

Canuelas works in 1/6 scale, so an actor or character that is 6 feet tall is scaled down to 12 inches in the art project. His dioramas are a combination of Ken or GI Joe figurines, 3D printed objects, miniature posters, and craft store items.

“JoAnn Fabric has become my place of pleasure,” he said. “I like to go to Goodwill to find certain accessories – could be the toys section, could be the Christmas section. You never know what you’ll find. I use the whole neighborhood to find what I need. …You wouldn’t believe what people throw away.

Pipe cleaners, straws, dollar treats, polystyrene, sealant – anything can end up in the art project.

He frequently shares his talents with students at local schools. He and his wife, Tashara, have seven children, so he is very happy to talk about his projects and to interest students in art. One of his dioramas – about the circulation of water – is still on display at Lakeview Middle School. He also makes videos for schools and received an award for a presentation at Lakeview.

Canuelas’ work is not limited to miniature scenes and figures. He is also a master at fixing what’s broken.

His dining room is lined with statues, including one in marble that he found cut in half. He said he used a lot of air-dried clay and airbrushing was also useful here. He even repaired a broken statue in a local church.

“If someone has something broken and it’s sentimental, they can bring it to me,” Canuelas said. “The harder the better.”


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