The Winter Garden artist began creating realistic scenes and characters as a hobby after a serious illness rendered him homebound.
Thomas Canuelas owned a successful multimedia production studio until a serious illness and long-term hospital stay forced him to give up that career and forge a new path.
When he returned home from his lengthy hospital stay, he could barely walk and had to rely on a wheelchair if he went any distance. Unable to leave his home in Winter Garden during the pandemic, Canuelas turned to 3D art as a way to fill his days and satisfy his urge to create.
“It’s just totally changed my whole life,” he said. “Being home and unable to work, I went through that time of stress. I worked my whole 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 keep working. I couldn’t use my legs, but my hands were still good, so I started using foam as a piece of art, and that’s how I got the first one. It grew from there, and I started using the Zbrush app program to do 3D art.”
For the last three years, he has built detailed dioramas featuring television and film characters and actors. When comic book writer and publisher 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 make something for myself to remember him. I started with the figure, and I made the desk, it’s out of wood, handmade. … I started putting posters on the wall. I took pictures of him with his wife and with the president and made sure those 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 films. The scene features a wooden desk he made from scratch; an assortment of desk items such as a cup of coffee, box of doughnuts, pen cup, a stack of comic books and two laptops; a miniature wall TV that plays actual interview clips; 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 every movie and television show 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 hard when he passed away,” Canuelas said. “It’s hard to see someone you grew up with pass away.”
The finished product is like a visual IMDb list of Williams’ work: “Mork & Mindy,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “One Hour Photo,” “Night at the Museum,” “Happy Feet,” “Robots, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Flubber,” “Jumanji,” The Birdcage,” “Aladdin” and more.
A client commissioned a scene from the TV show “Bewitched,” so he re-created a living room scene. Another customer has requested “Gilligan’s Island,” and he’s adding the entire cast, as well as the hut, 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 own shirts and holding his actual photograph. An urn on the shelf held his actual ashes, Canuelas said.
He has a seamstress who makes the small clothes for his projects.
Canuelas estimates he’s created close to 65 dioramas. This includes four similar versions of the Stan Lee project because of repeated requests.
He said someone once offered him close to $2,400 for his original Stan Lee diorama, but Canuelas said he won’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 I really, really enjoy doing.”
WORKS IN PROGRESS
Canuelas works on a 1/6 scale, so an actor or figure who stands 6 feet tall is reduced to 12 inches in the art project. His dioramas are a combination of Ken or G.I. Joe figures, 3D printed objects, miniature posters and craft store items.
“JoAnn Fabric became my place of enjoyment,” he said. “I enjoy going to Goodwill to find certain props — could be the toy 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 out.”
Pipe cleaners, straws, Dollar Store goodies, Styrofoam, sealant — anything could find its way into the art project.
He frequently shares his talents with students at local schools. He and his wife, Tashara, have seven children, so he gets great joy from talking about his projects and getting students interested in art. One of his dioramas — on water circulation — still is on display at Lakeview Middle School. He makes videos for schools, too, and received an award for a presentation at Lakeview.
Canuelas’ handiwork is not limited to miniature scenes and characters. He also is 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 uses a great deal of air-dry clay, and airbrushing comes in handy here, too. He has even repaired a broken statue at a local church.
“If someone has something that’s broken and it’s sentimental, they can bring it to me,” Canuelas said. “The harder the better.”
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