Molding famous figures Statues: For 40 years, Dorfman Museum Figures Inc. has crafted custom-made likenesses of notable people. Now the process can be viewed by the public.

September 15, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Behind the big glass window, Nathaniel Parker Jr., 58, checked the fit of the navy-blue double-breasted suit on the headless figure that will soon portray J. C. Penney, founder of the department-store chain, as he appeared in the 1940s.

In another room at the old Oella Mill, Robert Dorfman, 50, smoothed the straight, jet-black hair on the head of what will be a figure of a young Seminole Indian girl in a museum in the Florida Everglades. Nearby is a clay head of Union Gen. George G. Meade, surrounded by the pictures from which it was modeled.

Now, for the first time since Dorfman Museum Figures Inc. was founded in 1957, casual visitors are welcome to watch the complicated process in which 150 or so of these realistic figures are made every year for museums across the country and as far away as Singapore.

Robert Dorfman, who succeeded his late father, Earl, moved the studio two years ago from cramped fifth-floor quarters in the city to a spacious former weaving room on the second floor of Oella Mill.

The mill, on the Patapsco River across from Ellicott City, is being converted into a center for arts and crafts occupations, including antiques shops, art galleries and a bagpipe museum.

The move has permitted Dorfman to begin his long-held dream (( of developing his studio as an attraction, offering guided tours on weekends and displays during the week that include microchip repeaters explaining what visitors are seeing.

"Whenever we brought anyone in to our place, they were fascinated, particularly by the rack heads," Dorfman said.

In a macabre display, like something from the French Revolution, long racks hold 750 bald heads of the famous -- among them Churchill, Stalin, Elvis, John Wayne, Hank Aaron and Pocahontas -- and of generic men, women and children.

Bins hold the 130 sets of hands, adult and child, male and female, in many positions, from pointing to strumming a guitar.

Among the celebrities is a "smiling" head of John F. Kennedy that captured one of the late president's expressions but which the customer rejected in favor of a more serious likeness. There also are smiling and serious heads of President Clinton -- the former done before his election in 1992.

The head is the focal point of each meticulously detailed manikin.

In the case of the Meade model, when the client approves, the clay hair and mustache will be removed and the head will be cast in heavy, flesh-colored vinyl plastic that captures every feature.

Flesh highlights and shadows will be painted, medical-quality glass eyes emplaced, and beard, mustache, eyebrows and lashes of real hair implanted -- one hair at a time. And a lifelike effigy of the victor of Gettysburg will emerge to be joined with a body, posed and clothed.

At the stairs to the studio, the visitor encounters a deliveryman in gray work clothes standing with cartons on a hand truck. The first instinct is to lend a hand -- until you realize he's just a dummy.

Hanging on one wall and in a pile on the floor are Fiberglas molds from which the body parts are cast. Blackened from the kiln, they have a grotesque appearance.

Once a client approves the clay model, Dorfman said, liquid Fiberglas is brushed on, a layer at a time, using a cheese-cloth-type fabric to provide bulk and support as it hardens.

When the mold is ready, liquid vinyl resin coats the interior, and the mold is baked for about two hours. "It is a matter of time and temperature; there's quite an art to getting it right," he said.

Free-lance artists are employed to paint the flesh tones, highlights and shadows and implant the hair on the heads. But Nathaniel Parker, who began with Earl Dorfman as an apprentice 30 years ago, makes the bodies.

There are two kinds of bodies -- with prices to match. Custom jobs, such as J. C. Penney, whose physique must be replicated, can cost from $4,000 to $6,000.

Less expensive, by several thousand dollars, are flexible foam mannequins -- soft urethane foam on a heavy wire armature that can be positioned at will and surmounted by either a generic head or that of a specific individual.

Unless provided by the client, dress is an extra fee. Clients insist on historical accuracy in dress, and the research and tailoring is expensive. Dorfman has a long-standing relationship with A. T. Jones & Sons Inc., a Baltimore costumer.

One difficult custom job was a naked Indian figure for a display that commemorates the 1763 Battle of Bushy Run in Jeannette, Pa., during the French and Indian War. Body parts had to be fabricated in such a way that metal armlets and the loin cloth belt would conceal the joins.

But Parker, a self-taught artist, sculptor and anatomist, said golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias posed the greatest challenge among the 500 bodies he has built. "I had to do her in the position of swinging a club, driving, and that was really hard," he said.

Information: 410-750-7985.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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