Certainly the most important elements aren’t physical. They’re virtues buried deep within—honesty, courage, and compassion.
But what physical attributes capture that elusive spark making us unique and compelling to those who love us most? The sparkle of an eye? The timbre of a voice? There is another candidate— the line tracing the delicate curves and edges starting at our forehead and ending just below our chin.
A profile is such an indelible stamp, we harness the word’s power to mean other things, like an essay about a well-known person. Or a pile of statistics detailing your wealth, political convictions, or chances for a long life.
The power of the profile became clear to me after spending an afternoon with a Houston metal artist named Thomas Schwab. During his 30-year career, Tom has made thousands of art pieces by bending, cutting, and shaping copper, brass, bronze, and steel. You can see his work in Tranquility Park downtown, as well as the public space most of us know as the home to Party on the Plaza.
In his studio tucked away on the quiet street near West University Place, we made something he calls the Steelouette. “It took me 20 years to figure out how to do this and as far as I know, I am the only one out there making silhouettes out of steel,” Tom said.
The process started with selecting the subject. Easy enough—my two kids. We took a photograph that made them look like two shadows. Tom then loaded the photo into a computer, where a specially designed program rendered their outlines in lines of purple and green. The lines were interrupted by dots, making my kids look like little constellations in a virtual sky.
Tracing his cursor slowly over the profile of my 6-year-old daughter, Tom said, “This is what I want to capture. This is who you are.” I nodded, but still did not truly comprehend.
Tom worked the computer image, blowing it up, smoothing out rough patches and arranging the two images to create a single composition he liked. The next step was selecting a piece of metal. Tom stepped outside and grabbed something that looked like it had been left out for the garbage man.
“This is a fine, vintage wine!” Tom said, brushing off the leaves and twigs. “It looks nasty, but the nastier it gets, the more I like it.”
Tom placed the steel onto a huge table where a powerful jet of water mixed with grains of garnet cut the metal. “The water comes out at twice the speed of sound. When I started making these, I used heat instead of water, but the details came out rude and crude.”
The computerized profile image was transferred into a computer built into the table saw, and automatically the cutting began. For 12 minutes, the water jet moved over the steel, creating a cloud of water vapor in the air and an oozing gray sludge on the table. When it was finished, Tom took the metal over to a polishing wheel and knocked off the worst of the grime.
“Does this look like your kids?” Tom said. To my amazement, it did. It wasn’t just a likeness; it seemed to capture something deeper. I couldn’t resist tracing a finger along their foreheads and noses. It was them, all right.
“That is the spot on Jamie’s forehead that I kiss every morning before she goes to school,” I said, touching the same spot on the steel.
My small role involved making the base, a steel slab about the size of a good steak. We put it into a fiery little forge that heated it to 2,500 degrees—cherry red through and through.
“We are going to heat the metal to its limit.” Tom said, “and then beat the hell of it,” Tom said. That turned out to be exactly as fun as it sounded, each stroke of the hammer punctuated by a nice ringing sound.
Pounding the steel makes little black bits of carbon rise to the surface and flake off—which is mildly interesting until one lands on your skin.
At 2,500 degrees, it’s too hot to be truly painful. I just felt a sharp sensation followed by a foul, burning odor. That odor was me burning. But any thought of that vanished when Tom soldered the sculpture to its base, completing a piece of art with my own kids as its subject.
“You couldn’t destroy this if you tried,” he said, handing it over. “This is something that will last forever.”
Editor’s Note: Greg Hassell is a contributing writer for The Buzz Magazines. If you have a new adventure for Greg to write about, please e-mail your suggestions to (firstname.lastname@example.org) info (at) thebuzzmagazines (dot) com.