A Mannequin for All Seasons

Jim Bell elucidates companionship for dummies

I nearly drive my car straight into Portland's, the downtown bar and restaurant where I've arranged to meet local craftsman Jim Bell. My near crash is caused by the scary tangle of life-size mannequins hanging out of an oddball vehicle (Bell tells me later it's a three-quarter-ton 1952 Dodge M-27 troop truck) that's parked out front. These scary-looking dummies are why I'm here. Bell, who says he's not an artist and swears he's also not "some weirdo," spends a good part of every day fashioning old foam rubber into lifelike figures that he'd rather you didn't call "dummies." Bell keeps one of these special friends with him at all times and, when he isn't busy playing Dr. Phibes, takes a whole party of them out for a ride.

I join Jim inside, where he's sipping a Coke in the company of one of his polyethylene pals.

New Times: Okay, what's with the scary troop of soldiers out there by the curb?

Made men: Mannequin maker Jim Bell enjoys a drink with his synthetic friends.
Kevin Scanlon
Made men: Mannequin maker Jim Bell enjoys a drink with his synthetic friends.

Jim Bell: Those are some of my infantrymen. I try to give them a look of shell shock or battle fatigue. Because a lot of the people I make are soldiers, and usually when you see soldier mannequins they have happy, smiling faces. Like they're saying, "War is cool!" But war isn't fun; it wears you out. My guys look like they're anxious to get out of battle.

NT: Why do you do this?

Bell: Five years ago I wanted it to look like there was someone sitting in my trailer up in Heber. So it would look like someone was home when I was away. I put a cavalry uniform on him because I've always loved Indian war history from the 1870s. And it just took off from there. I got better at making people: better detailing on the faces, more lifelike hands, and stuff like that. I went from using Styrofoam heads to using fully molded masks. I used to hand-paint the eyes until I found a source for really good quality glass eyes.

NT: Do you make money at this?

Bell: Well, I sometimes sell them. But I only charge for materials, not my time. Because I have a full-time job, I work for a company that supplies washers and dryers to apartment complexes. Making these people is more my entertainment, my hobby. Whenever I get paid for making a person, I invest that money in the next person I want to make.

NT: Is that how you refer to them — as people?

Bell: Well, they're life-size. They look like people. I guess you could call them characters. But not dummies. Dummy is kind of a mean word that makes you think of a store mannequin, and they never have much personality. Mine are poseable, and they express emotions. I mean, I try to make them come to life by giving them expressions that people really have.

NT: What are they made of?

Bell: Believe it or not, it's all recycled materials. I make a skeleton out of lightweight aluminum. Then I sculpt foam rubber into musculature. Then I put a nylon casing, like pajamas with footies in them, over the whole thing. Then I have to get a wig.

NT: Right. Because they have to have hair.

Bell: Yeah, and the best place to get human hair is these places where you can buy used wigs.

NT: Used wigs?

Bell: Yeah, when people buy a new wig, they don't have a place to put the old one. So they wash them up and they sell them. Other people buy them and wear them. I mean, they're clean, there's no dirt or crust on them.

NT: Do your people have names?

Bell: Well, the guy in my army Jeep at home is called MacArthur. I don't name the ones I'm making for someone else; I let you name your own. People like to attach affectionate nicknames on these just like you would a pet or a baby.

NT: Does each one have its own personality?

Bell: Yes! I purposefully try to make each one different. You want to give them their own skin tone, eye color and hair color, but you really have to let them have their own personality.

NT: So, are they . . . anatomically correct?

Bell: No. That's not something I shoot for. I mean, if it's a woman, she's going to have a real natural-looking bustline, and if it's a man he'll have accentuated biceps. He might have a beer gut. And big thighs and calves are good, too.

NT: Are these people kind of a substitute for, say, a wife or some friends?

Bell: They make good companions, especially when you're driving around town. Elderly people who've lost their mates will order one of these life-size people to ride around with them. Or you can just sit them in a chair in your room. Or you could lay one on a couch, and put a magazine across his chest, and a pair of sunglasses, and he would look like he's taking a nap.

NT: And you take one with you everywhere.

Bell: Yes, everywhere I go. It's my trademark. It's how I let people know that I make these people. I like to make one of their arms loosely jointed so that when we're out driving, I can make them wave to the people in the next car. That's a real fun thing to do.

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