MADAWASKA, Maine — As far as Victorine Dionne is concerned, her students can’t be too creative or too ambitious, just as long as their heads still fit through the door.
Looking out of the windows on the third floor of the former Acadia School building in Madawaska, a line of “big heads,” or “grosse-tetes,” stares out at passersby.
They are the creations of about a dozen participants in an ongoing workshop sponsored by the Madawaska-SAD 33 adult education program aimed at getting people primed and ready for the 2014 World Acadian Congress.
On display now, the big heads will make their public debut at a planned parade during the congress.
“They are just beautiful, aren’t they?” Dionne said while taking a break during a recent workshop session. “They just make you want to laugh when you look at them.”
Taking inspiration from the world around them, Dionne’s students are creating characters and objects based on Acadian literature, culture and the region.
Drawing from the deep vein of Catholicism in the area, there’s Mother Superior and a priest; and from nature a fiddlehead fern, a daisy, potatoes, a mosquito and a 12-foot birch tree have sprung up.
Straight out of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline,” the title heroine is coming to life, though Dionne pointed out someone needs to create the hero and her lost love, Gabriel, at some point.
In the corner looms “Bonhomme sept-heures,” or the “Seven-O’clock Man,” the French Acadian version of a boogeyman, ready to frighten small children into good behavior.
“During the day, Bonhomme Sept is a funny, friendly man,” Dionne said, pointing to the head’s smiling face and wide eyes. “But after 7 p.m. he is the boogieman,” and she turns the head to reveal the opposite, more menacing expression on the creation.
According to folklore, parents would warn their children to be indoors by 7 p.m., lest Bonhomme sept-heures comes to take them away.
“I remember parents telling their children, ‘be good or else Bonhomme sept-heures will get you,’” Dionne, a native of Riviere Verte, New Brunswick, said.
The 2014 World Acadian Congress will be hosted by the Maine and New Brunswick sides of the St. John Valley and the Temiscouata region of Quebec, the first time the once-every-five-years event has spanned two countries.
More than 50,000 visitors are expected in the region for the cultural, historical, athletic and scholastic events and hundreds of family reunions during the event’s two weeks in August.
The Maine Acadians were selected to host the Acadia Day parade on Aug. 16, 2014, and the big heads will be among the star attractions.
Each papier-mache creation is made to be worn as a head covering, Dionne explained, noting while they are lightweight, they can be a bit awkward.
Dionne and several of her students demonstrated, each donning a big head and walking around the classroom laughing as they tried to avoid bumping into each other or other students.
Each big head begins as an inflated balloon which is then covered with multiple layers of newspaper strips dipped in a mixture of flour and water.
“It’s really a ‘goop’ that you mix up just like gravy,” Ida Beaulieu said as she worked to cover the balloon that will eventually become a daisy. “It can’t be lumpy, like my gravy is.”
Beaulieu said she was inspired to create a daisy because it is the flower of Acadia.
Nearby, Claudette Morin was working on what could arguably be called the insect of Acadia — a mosquito.
“This is what inspired me,” she said, holding up a postcard of a cartoon mosquito. “I am having such a good time doing this.”
The workshops officially run Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6 to 8:30 p.m., but the room is open most days for anyone wanting to put in some extra time.
When the students are there, Dionne is in perpetual motion helping one get started, supplying more “goop” to another, offering advice and critique or working on her own creation: a 12-foot-tall birch tree festooned with a dozen black crows.
“I had these crows left over from my son-in-law’s 50th birthday party a few years ago,” she said. “I wanted to reuse them and this idea came to me.”
Dionne, retired high school and university art teacher, said the workshops are in wide demand.
“It seems everyone wants me,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been asked to teach a class in Van Buren and in Edmundston.”
The classes, Dionne said, are as much social as they are educational. The bantering, animated conversation and laughter was constant as the women worked on their projects.
“It’s also quite relaxing,” Angela Soucy said as she smoothed strips of newspaper onto a balloon.
That tranquil spell was broken moments later when a student’s balloon burst during inflation amid screams and gales of laughter.
“Did you see that?” Beaulieu said. “My head was inside my ‘big head’ when that popped [and] I jumped right out if it.”
Sometimes the final product is dictated by the creative process and not what the student had in mind, Dionne said.
“One little girl came with an idea she wanted to make a poodle,” she said. “I told her I can’t promise it will look like a poodle, but it will look like a dog.”
For information on taking part in the Big Head workshops, contact the Madawaska/SAD 33 Adult Education office at 728-6314.