Heroic Poses

July 18, 2011

Eight years ago, Jesse Weiss, an assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of the Ozarks, had a happy kind of accident.

A pop culture enthusiast and inveterate collector of kitsch, Weiss saw that the head had come off one of his collectible action figures: the professional wrestler, Rhino. “I guess it was kind of serendipitous,” said Weiss. “One of the heads popped off and I realized you could take them apart and put them back together. “

Weiss sifted through a drawer full of action figures, taking apart their hands, forearms, biceps, torsos and legs, and then reassembling them. He turned his attention to the people in his life. First, he fashioned a figure of his father by mixing and matching clothing and painting the head and face. He did the same for his two brothers. And then he started to look to his workplace for subjects to whom he could pay tribute.

“It’s kind of a fun little hobby,” he said. “It’s really cool to sit there and have a teacher be shown on an action figure rather than GI Joe or a superhero with fictional powers.”

Jamie Lewis Hedges, director of Outdoor and Environmental Experiences, in real life.

Jamie Lewis Hedges, as an action figure.

Over the years, Weiss has refined his methods. Three years ago, on a trip to a hobby shop with his children, he discovered that sculpting clay can be molded to make hair and other bodily features. He has created more than 100 action figures modeled on fellow professors, administrators, students, community members and even the college’s president. He says he has no clear method of choosing whose image he wants to reproduce, and that he mostly makes them in order to give them away.

“It’s a real honor to get one,” said Rick Niece, Ozarks' president. “I felt quite privileged.”

Action figures for grown-ups aren't as entirely weird as they sound. After all, a potent mix of nostalgia and irony has made it a viable business idea to create and sell action figures of Moses, Sigmund Freud and President Woodrow Wilson, among others. Artists also have made limited edition figurines -- some of them inspired by images in their own works -- as a way of obscuring the lines between high and low culture.

Niece said that he displays his action figure -- which is in a box on which Weiss hand-lettered the words, “The Boss” -- on a coffee table in the middle of a large room in his home where he and his wife frequently entertain. “I keep it right in the room where we have those dinners,” he said. “They can’t miss it. It’s a focal point.”

While having a handmade action figure in one’s image has become a sought-after honor on the Clarksville, Ark. campus, Weiss acknowledges that he is somewhat limited by the basic materials he has to work with. The model for the original bodies is, after all, an array of highly muscled professional wrestlers (for men, of course; the pickings are even slimmer for women).

Niece said that he’s 5-foot-6 and about 145 pounds. His action figure, on the other hand? “This guy’s ripped,” he said.

Brian Hardman, associate professor of English, displays his likeness on his desk, sometimes using it as an icebreaker with students and their families. Hardman said his action figure looks a lot like him and even manages to capture some of his personality, though he did offer one critique: “Jesse credited me with too much muscle.”

Hardman added that his action figure also helps lighten his mood from time to time. “When I need a laugh, I look at the muscled action figure and say to myself, ‘English professor by day, cage fighter by night!’ ” Hardman said in an e-mail. “I've always secretly wanted to be a superhero and having the action figure really feeds my delusions of grandeur.”

Sean Coleman, an associate professor of biology who teaches interdisciplinary courses with Weiss, said he keeps his action figure next to the nameplate on his desk, and he praised the evident attention to detail, down to the mole on his figure’s lip and the color of his belt. “We’re academics, but we’re quirky a little bit,” he said. “Everyone I know would like one of those things. It’s definitely part of the campus culture.”

Sean Coleman, and his action figure.

Weiss has made just one female action figure, in honor of the retiring director of student support services. And if he has a qualm, it’s the lack of usable source material for women, which makes it difficult to make figures for them; few female action figures have bodies that are based on realistic forms rather than on fantastical images.

The larger significance of the fact that there are so few models for women is not lost on him, either. In a course on social problems, Weiss and his students talk about how gender norms are socialized during childhood. “Toys are a huge part of that,” he said. “They’re a representation, a cultural artifact of what’s deemed normal.… I think they say something about us as a society and how these kids are socialized.”

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