There’s a creature lurking on California Street. It’s 8 feet tall and growing, with rippling muscles and claws that scrape at the cement driveway. Thin wings protrude from its back, throwing a skeletal shadow onto the lawn. And a huge, thick tail curves into the open garage.
There’s been no sign of fire from its gaping maw just yet. Of course, that’s because the monster’s head is resting on a table a few yards away from its body.
No, it hasn’t been vanquished by a valiant knight. Instead, its keeper is helping it gain strength every day. By Halloween night, this frightening dragon will be fully grown (head attached) and standing with its brethren, ready to terrify any brave trick-or-treaters that dare cross its path.
If you ask Desi Guana, the dragonmaster responsible for the massive terror in the driveway, the whole thing is simply a bit of DIY fun that’s gotten out of hand. The Lodi dad builds fanciful creatures out of papier-mâché as a way of distracting himself from his disability.
The dragon in the driveway, large enough to eclipse half of the garage door, is just one element of a whole scene Guana has in mind.
“This year, I was thinking of a freak-show-style carnival, with monsters and mermaids. My oldest wanted a dragon. My youngest wanted a gorilla,” he said. “I’m excited.”
Guana works as a web and graphic designer out of his home, where he lives with his wife Cristie and their sons Dominic and Giovanni. He graduated from Lodi High School in 1999 and holds a degree in computer programming from Arizona State University.
The once-active Guana had a stroke five years ago, at age 29. The episode weakened his right side and damaged his vision and speech abilities.
But take a moment to talk with him as he applies more papier-mâché to the dragon, and you’d never know this was a man who spent four years in a wheelchair.
“I’ve only been walking for the past year and a half,” he said. “I can’t run, and my leg’s not the same. But working out here, I feel fine.”
Speech and physical therapy helped Guana regain his mobility and independence. But what really inspired him was watching his young sons play at the park. He knew he wanted to keep up and get out of the wheelchair.
He does use a cane during walks around the neighborhood, in case his bad leg tires. He occasionally straps a special brace to his right leg to prevent his toes from curling under and tripping him. Guana works in energetic spurts, adding to the dragon for a full day, then taking a few days off to rest up.
“(The stroke) totally changed my perspective,” he said. “I’m glad I can make people happy by building this kind of stuff.”
The creative work building monsters helps Guana keep his mind off the changes his stroke forced onto his life. Guana’s wife enjoys his hobby and watching her husband be creative.
“Whatever he wants to do, I’m supportive,” she said. “It’s good for him, and its good for the kids. It’s nice.”
Months of work
Usually the projects for Halloween and Christmas begin in the summertime. The hot, dry weather helps the papier-mâché and glue set quickly. But bigger plans forced Guana to get a big headstart.
This year’s scene includes the dragon, a mermaid, a scary gorilla and some miniature nightmare fairies, plus whatever else Guana has time for. So far, materials have cost about $260.
The dragon began taking shape in February and will reach 14 feet tall. Most of Guana’s figures top out at 6 feet.
The monsters are made of materials you could find in most high school art classrooms. Frames are made of wooden beams. Guana uses duct tape, chicken wire and insulation foam to bridge the seam of one piece with the next. A special papier-mâché recipe dabbed onto newspapers forms the bulk of the animal.
This week, Guana had to tear much of the dragon’s neck and torso off the frame. This is the largest monster he has ever created, and he wasn’t prepared for how much the heavy head piece would drag the neck down. The frame is now reinforced with a sturdy black pipe. Guana is re-sculpting the body and making plans for a tough, leathery exterior to form the dragon’s skin.
Strong muscles and sinews are formed with thick ropes of aluminum foil secured to the papier-mâché form. He paints wood glue over small patches of fine netting and other frayed materials for a layered scaly look that will withstand wet weather. The skin of the wings is created by gluing plastic bags together, then passing over them with a heat gun. The plastic clumps and melts to form a weather-beaten wingspan.
Teeth and claws are made of wood. The final creation will be airbrushed to add color.
Where will the Guana family keep all these monsters?
“We actually bought another house around the corner,” he said. “We’re moving, but my parents will stay here, so I get to keep my shop.”
A neighborhood fascination
Building things activates Guana’s creative streak. He has also built two towering arbors for the front lawn, and a cheery lemonade stand for his sons.
The new lot is bigger, so these creatures will have plenty of space in their new home.
Even when the front yard looks like a construction site, strewn with chicken wire and lumber, people out walking their dogs grin and ask how the work is going.
“When I first started doing this, I thought the neighbors were going to complain,” said Guana.
He hasn’t heard a negative word about the project. Instead, some people bring over newspapers for him to use.
“I’ve watched him start this from the ground up,” said Manny Luna, who lives around the corner. “I think it’s fantastic. We have an artist in the neighborhood.”
It’s not just the passers-by who enjoy Guana’s work.
Teenagers stop by in groups to watch Guana build. They ask questions about the process. Some stay for hours. Guana doesn’t mind.
“I was surprised when they asked if they could watch,” he said. “But there’s worse places they could be.”
In a few months, the finished dragon will tower over the sidewalk, leering at costumed children running from house to house. But with so many people watching its creation and supporting Guana’s work, perhaps the fearsome creature won’t be so scary in the end.