A Mannequin for All Seasons

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?

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.

NT: That does sound like fun! How many of these people do you have?

Bell: Precisely 213. I'm working on number 214 this week; he's a New Mexico state trooper. I can make all kinds of people. My motto on my business card is "a mannequin for all seasons."

NT: So, this is kind of a really fulfilling hobby for you.

Bell: Oh, yes, very. I really like to study people and try to understand how they react. If you sit and look at a person long enough, you can pick up mannerisms in their face. I do that a lot, and then I go home and I put those expressions on the faces of my people. Sometimes I use famous people I see on TV. I made an Andy Griffith doll once. You have to be careful not to infringe on copyrights, though. I had to change his name to N.D. Griffith, and I couldn't make him look too much like the real guy.

NT: So if I'm really into reruns of Gidget, you could make me a Sally Field dummy?

Bell: Well, I could make you someone who looks a lot like her. But exact reproductions of celebrities is wrong. But if you squinted at her or maybe put her in a darker corner, it would look more like her.

NT: So what happens if someone comes to you and says, "I want a doll that looks exactly like Britney Spears so that I can have sex with it"?

Bell: I couldn't do that. I don't have those capabilities, but I know of someone who does. I saw him on 60 Minutes, and he makes life-size, anatomically correct people who are so real that you have to look close to see if they are real or not. Fleshlike skin, bendable joints like real people, and you can program in certain expressions so that if you want to be involved with them physically you can make them have groans of pleasure and all that stuff. I can't make those. But I do make wall people.

NT: Wall people?

Bell: Yes. They're on a plaque, and they're all flat on one side. So when you hang one on the wall, he looks like a real person who's coming out of the wall. They have a very blank expression, like a person might have if they were walking through a wall.

NT: And why would I want something like that?

Bell: It takes up less space than a whole person. Also, people like the idea of other people coming out of walls.

NT: Maybe we should go. What if someone tries to steal one of the dummies . . . I mean people . . . out of your car?

Bell: People don't steal them, either because they're afraid they'll come to life or because they would attract a lot of attention running down the street with another person under their arm.

NT: Do you ever think about these guys coming to life on you?

Bell: I've thought of that sometimes, and I don't know what I'd do if that ever happened. Especially since I have about 10 of these guys sitting around my house. If they came to life one day, I'd just freak out.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela