By Jon Sasaki
For the price of a dollar, you can visit Andy Macdonald’s dummy farm. That’s right, a dummy farm. Macdonald populates his Coburg, New Brunswick, woodlot with home-made dummies constructed from anything he can find – discarded clothing, Javex bottles, broom handles, etc. He arranges his creations in eerie tableaux.
The entry price hasn’t changed in three decades. Of course, neither have the dummies. Fungus and decay have beset the oldest ones, which receive little upkeep, except for the removal of accumulated leaves and pine-cones. Some are even missing body parts that have been stolen by squirrels over the years.
The newer dummies exhibit elements of more refined construction, and as such are generally too fragile to withstand the inclement New Brunswick weather. Instead, they have been heaped into an old dilapidated school bus by the farm entrance. If you want to see them, Andy’s more than happy to give you a personal tour.
Back in August 2001, my friend Dale and I stopped by this crazy roadside attraction. I know that “crazy” sounds harsh, but no other word can describe the fear that struck me when I caught sight of decomposing figures nailed to trees, or the panic that ensued when Andy produced a pistol-shaped stick covered with batteries and wires, and offered to electrocute me.
A tiny voice in the back of my head said: “Careful, Jon, this might not be a gag…” So, siding with caution, I volunteered Dale to be electrocuted instead. As the electrode made contact with her hand, Andy made a buzzing noise with his mouth, simulating a shock, and causing Dale to recoil laughing. I breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently the shock treatment is a signature MacDonald trick that he performs on many victims.
When I inquired about his other visitors, MacDonald said, “That Diamond boy came once.” Diamond boy? “From La Bamba,” he clarified, referring to actor Lou Diamond Phillips. Apparently Lou was so taken with the dummy farm that he stayed the entire afternoon and shot four rolls of film. I neglected to ask if MacDonald made a Lou Diamond dummy to commemorate the occasion.
It would have been right at home next to the Arnold Schwarzenegger or the circa 1995 O.J. Simpson replica. At first glance, the Arnold and O.J. dummies look very similar. But Andy has cleverly strapped
“word balloon” devices to almost every dummy’s body -hand-painted signs with characteristic captions scrawled on them – to help viewers differentiate between his creations.
Our host delights in showing us every dummy, and delivering the one-liners with a chuckle. The Newfie Maid wears a sign that says: “By Garge, I wish the codfish would come our way agin, so’s we could have fish cakes fer supper.” A protester dummy quips: ” …but Critchen, he doesn’t fight: he chokes people.” Heh-heh. The Prime Minister “Critchen” puppet nearby wields a can of pepper spray, but his flaccid arms do not look strong enough to grip anyone’s neck threateningly.
Dale and I notice a disproportionate number of signs that refer to “Joe”. A bunch of them are “Joe” as in “Clark,” while others are just plain “Joe.” When pressed to explain, MacDonald states that it takes a while to letter a sign. Sometimes, he continues, when he picks names that are too long, he forgets what he’s writing before reaching the end of the word.
That was the point when I realized a great deal of leg pulling was going on at this dummy farm. MacDonald is the author of five critically acclaimed collections of short stories, including detailed memoirs of his depression-era childhood. His bad memory explanation just didn’t wash. I never found out why the place is so Joe-abundant, but that’s all right. It’s not like there’s an officially-correct way to make a dummy farm. MacDonald’s pretty much writing the rulebook.
Other muses include Pierre Trudeau and most of John Wayne Bobbitt. MacDonald thinks of these topical tableaux as snapshots that not only capture characters, but points in time. For this reason, MacDonald never modifies dummies after they have been built. Their genesis may be tied to a current event, but once they are introduced into the woodlot, dummies are immune to “real-world” social developments. Although her clothes look a bit weathered these days, Princess Diana will forever exist on the dummy farm in her prime.
Too many art school critiques have instilled a permanent reflex in me to ask the question: why does he do this? I have a romantic vision of the “Outsider Artist” revelling in the sheer act of creation, not motivated by any reward of remuneration or prestige. Yet I am not convinced that Andy fits this archetype, as he eagerly boasts of his TV appearances and sold-out best-selling books. However, Andy is the antithesis of an art-star Prima Donna. He possesses a warmth and generosity that is rare even for folksy backwater New Brunswick. With great love, he creates puppets that dance on that fine line between art and craft, their meaning shifting with every step. I wonder whether or not Andy is aware of the long tradition of using macabre dolls in fine art. My suspicion, however, is that he is not attempting to add a new chapter to that art history text, and the question again comes back to “Why.”
Of course, Andy knows better than to answer such a reductive question seriously. “No reason” is ultimately the only acceptable answer, and it was the only one MacDonald offered me that day. Like most profound art, to rationalize it is to diminish its potency. There is the drive to take something astonishing and incomprehensible, and chop it up into inadequate but manageable little answers to “who, what, when, where, why and how.”
Each time an answer to one of those questions is hewn off, it bleeds away some of that exquisite shock we feel when confronted with the unfamiliar.
Andy Macdonald understands that the magical appeal of the dummy farm is its ability to astonish and bewilder, frighten and comfort all at the same time. And for all that, he charges just a dollar.
BP correspondent Jon Sasaki lives in Toronto.