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Sculpting Faces and Futures

Rhona Lewis

Silicone noses, facial masks, acrylic eyes … No, we’re not in a costume shop. Welcome to the world of facial prosthetics, where art, science, and technology are restoring dignity to victims of trauma, cancer survivors, and others.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

face with maskIt was a job that sounded like it came straight out of a spy novel: Create disguises for the agents of the CIA. But in this real-life scenario, the stakes were sky high.

“Before I issued a disguise, I asked myself two questions: ‘Will this keep the agent alive? Will it attract or detract attention?’ ” says Robert Barron, who used to work for the CIA. “If it was good enough for me, I was sure that it would be good enough for someone else.”

Today, Barron is asking those same two questions, but in a different context. As a highly acclaimed facial prosthetic specialist, he has designed hundreds of facial parts for cancer survivors, children born with congenital differences, and victims of burn and trauma, helping them regain their dignity and return to normal life. 

“I figured that if I could put people in hiding, I could take them out of hiding. If I could give a person a new identity, I could give back an identity.”

 

From Forger to Cloak and Dagger

From his office in Ashburn, Virginia, Barron comments, “I can make silicone look like skin.” If this sounds like the boast of an artist, it is perhaps because art was where his journey to becoming a professional facial prosthetist (known as a maxillofacial prosthetist in the UK) began. When he was young Barron once spent weeks perfecting a painting of the Grand Canyon. It was so realistic that on opening day he found it hanging in the photo gallery of the state fair. He won a blue ribbon.

While studying commercial art in college, Barron set his heart on working for Hallmark. But instead of just cheering up people with his greeting cards, he was destined to save lives. He found work first at the Pentagon and then at the CIA where, as a senior forger, he reproduced vital documents. Then, in an effort to maximize his artistic talent, he approached the director and moved into the disguise department. Using traditional materials such as beards, moustaches, wigs, and clothing, he helped agents hide in the shadowy world of spies.

When the need for more sophisticated disguises arose, Barron attended a conference of the Association of Biomedical Sculptures. There he was introduced to a different world, the world of those who were the survivors of disease and trauma, and he knew that his second career would involve helping these people. But in the meantime he perfected the art of disguise, successfully sending disguised case officers into dangerous terrain.

Ten years later, Barron retired from the CIA and from scratch embarked on a new career as a designer of prosthetic facial devices (eyes, ears, and noses) and digits. What made him choose this field over the film industry in Hollywood, where an expert in disguise can make a fortune?

“The film industry doesn’t need my standards. If you’re not helping someone, what is life?” Reflecting on the influence of his childhood, he adds, with the slightest touch of nostalgia, “I was brought up going to church and Sunday school. I owe quite a bit of what I am to my grandparents and parents. I believe that God gave me a gift and that I am using it the way He wants me to use it. I thought I had found my purpose in the CIA, but there is no better feeling than knowing you can make a difference in a person’s life. I’ll do this till I drop.”

 

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