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Creative writing class ponders unique local mannequin collection

Beloit Daily News

Beloit Daily News

When retired electrician Mike Martin of Newark Township passed away at age 88 in July, he left behind a unique legacy: a collection of about sixty female mannequins he had displayed in his home. They went on auction this fall – and when English professor Christina Clancy found out the public viewing was the same time as her Introduction to Creative Writing class, she could not resist.

Beloit Auction and Realty organized the online auction; pre-bidding began Aug. 20 at 10 a.m., ending Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. They were available to public viewing two days before.

She called the house, at 7115 W. Spring Creek Road in Beloit, “a creative writing professor’s dream come true. We all have so many questions about it.” She originally planned to have her students work on an exercise called the “battle of details,” in which they go to an unfamiliar place trying to find the most “revealing, interesting, unusual and rogue details.” Clancy figured the class could approach the viewing as writers, rather than competing for specificity.

Martin had been collecting and assembling mannequins for about twenty years. Each mannequin took about four to five days to assemble, using “fiberglass cloth and resin, auto repair body plastic, PVC plastic piping, sand paper, paint and a silicone rubber hand mold,” the Beloit Daily News reported in a 2007 article about his collection. He collected parts and clothing wherever he could, sometimes traveling as far as Atlanta, Ga., and frequented secondhand shops to find big band era formalwear and other period clothing. He applied makeup, and mixed up their outfits regularly. Some models were based on mermaids or the character Elvira. Many of the models have augmented breasts, after Martin used Bondo Body Filler, normally used on rusted-out fenders. Through all this effort, he became a bit of an expert on the history of mannequins.

Clancy was taken aback by the viewing experience. “I had no idea that the mannequins would be so incredibly buxom and strange and sad and interesting, or that the experience of entering the house, tucked into the woods on a country road, would seem so…intimate,” she commented via email. The students were intrigued as well, she thought. “I think we all felt like we’d entered Mike’s brain and his life, and of course his wife’s life. They were more present in their absence,” she said. My students were fascinated with everything they saw, from the patriotic wallpaper to the wedding dress on the kitchen counter.”

Clancy and the students found many oddities to explore. “Outside, we found a square of concrete with a circle on it. We figured this was an outdoor ballroom — there were poles with lightbulbs hanging from them — but I later learned that Mike had roller-skate dances out there,” she added. “We poked around the gazebo and the dilapidated barn. Some students were totally creeped out and lifted up the bricks outside to look for bodies, while others felt Mike was just another collector, and this was a healthy outlet for him.”

After taking extensive notes during the viewing, the class is writing creative nonfiction, after they record 500-word radio essays that will possibly become podcasts. Clancy is working on an essay herself. No students from the class responded to interviews before publication.

Source: Beloit Daily News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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