Bodies Of Work

Baltimore's Dorfman Museum Figures Inc. has a place in history as a supplier of sunthetic likemesses to various clients around the world

July 07, 2003|By Cheryl Johnston | Cheryl Johnston,SUN STAFF

The outside of Robert Dorfman's business on Holabird Avenue in Baltimore is deceptively plain - no display window, no artistic sign to hint at the creativity within.

Open the door, though, and you find an 82nd Airborne soldier, dressed in fatigues, crouched, squinting as he peers into the sight of his M-14. Nearby, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a business suit, stands next to a gray-haired Benjamin Banneker in late 18th-century breeches and jacket. To their right sits Dorfman's father, Earl, head slightly down, eyes closed. This might be disconcerting to people who knew the man, who died in 1995, if the Dorfmans weren't in the business of making "realistic figures" of vinyl plastic and polyurethane for museums.

Even so, Robert Dorfman, 55, says some people find it strange for him to keep a life-size figure of his dad in the office. "I'd probably think it was weird, too," he says, "if I didn't grow up with it."

Earl Dorfman, an artist, window display arranger and mannequin repairman, made his first lifelike figure, Abraham Lincoln, out of vinyl plastic in 1957, with the help of a man who made prostheses.

He did it to show businessmen raising capital for a wax museum in Washington that they didn't need to order expensive wax figures from Europe. "The owner put Abe in his living room," Robert Dorfman says. "It took three months selling stock to get enough money for the museum."

The success of the Lincoln figure earned Earl Dorfman the contract to do all the figures for that museum, and he soon had a full-time business, making realistic figures, running wax museums and even owning a few while their popularity was at its height. "My wife teases me that I have a wax museum history of the world," Robert Dorfman says.

He started working with his dad in 1970. Within the decade, the building of wax museums slowed and some started to close, so Robert began approaching historical museums about using figures in their displays. "It was a hard sale for a long time," he recalls. But business got better. Dorfman found museums using more figures to better depict the appearance, clothing and social customs of particular groups of people, as well as the tools they used.

Dorfman Museum Figures Inc. now averages about 100 orders a year, ranging from a single replacement head to 50 figures at a time, and sells to museums nationally and internationally, as well as to visitor centers, historic houses and people who just want a lifelike figure. In the region, Dorfman's clients include the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick and the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella.

In the main office area of the business, Malcolm Harlow, a free-lance sculptor who has worked with Dorfman for more than 20 years, has left two clay heads on a table behind the desks. One is of Tuskegee Airman Benjamin O. Davis Jr. in his 20s. The other is of a middle-age man whose son-in-law has ordered a life-size figure of his father-in-law hunting. "I'm not sure what they're doing with it," Dorfman shrugs. He thinks the man lives out west and hunts caribou.

In making a head, Harlow works from photographs, first to get the basic shape and then to capture the details, from crinkles around the eyes to fine scars and pockmarks in the skin. For the hunter, who is still alive, the sculptor has used black-and-white photos, all with the same expression on the man's face. But for Davis, the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force, he has photos from newspaper clippings, showing Davis with different expressions at different times.

The sculptor can work with the oil-based clay for months or longer without the clay drying out. This is important because Dorfman has found that some projects take months, even years, of communicating with customers before the head is approved.

After the approval, a liquid plastic mixed with fiberglass is poured onto the clay. "The plastic that goes on it is like a paste or honey," Dorfman explains. When it hardens, it's taken apart, and the clay is scraped out. Dorfman then has this mold from which he can make heads indefinitely.

To make the head, vinyl plastic is poured into the hardened fiberglass and plastic mold, building up the skin-like appearance in layers through a heating and cooling layering process.

The hunter and Davis will leave this building when their heads and bodies are finished, but if they weren't going to be sold right away, their heads would join more than 1,400 other lifelike vinyl plastic heads in a huge warehouse room. Heads of various ages and ethnicities are spaced evenly on wooden racks. Many are duplicates. Some are already painted and complete with eyes, lashes, implanted eyebrows and wigs. Others wait, bald and hollow-eyed, for their features to be chosen.

On one wall hang small and large hands and feet, along with short children's legs, Indian-style sitting legs, even old, venous legs.

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