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It takes about a week, between 40 and 80 hours of work, for Hester to make one table, depending on its size (the 11-foot-long, 500-pound "community table" he just finished for a Miami Starbucks took longer). The process starts with using an angle grinder to separate the "skin" of a car hood or roof from the reinforcing layer underneath. The flatter the original steel, the better. "There's no part of a VW Beetle I can use," he explains. "It's all curves." He designs each piece "by eye" and says the metal itself dictates what type of furniture it wants to be. Hester is a perfectionist about the final product. Joints have to be welded velvety smooth. Legs must be perfectly straight—"If you get the metal too hot on a welded joint," he says, "one leg could become a bit of a wanderer." Hester even finishes out the bottoms of his tables, attaching Vehicle Identification Number plates from the car or truck he used to make it. The tables are disassembled for shipping, with instructions for the new owners on how to match the legs to the correct corners through a pattern of raised dots.
Hester is always looking for raw material, taking time every few weeks to visit salvage yards where he has to "hike hoods" one at a time, often hundreds of yards back to his truck for transport to the shop. From his hours among those acres of dead autos, he's become an expert on the weathering and rusting patterns of specific makes and models. A 1980s Chevy pick-up offers the biggest single piece of metal with a minimum of side creases. Certain years of the Mercedes 240D were painted a blue that over time turns the color of the Mediterranean. Some Ford trucks from the 1970s sun-fade to a bright turquoise and then develop pretty polka dots of deep red rust. The roofs of 1960s Chevy Suburbans make excellent conference tables. At a gas station one time, Hester paid a guy $100 on the spot for the rust-speckled hood of the ancient truck the man was driving.
"As I'm working on pieces, I often think 'I wonder what all that truck has seen,''' Hester says. "In really old trucks out in the yards, I'll find calendars still clipped to the sun visors, scribbled with notes. As I read them, it's like traveling through time."
Stockpiling pieces of the heavy steel used on American-made cars in the mid-20th century is now a race against time for Hester. Junkyards are filled mostly with wrecks from the 1990s or later—stuff he can't use because the paint quality is too good and the steel quality doesn't pass what he calls "the thump test." "Most of the cars I would want to use have already gone to the crusher," he says.
There is that one near-mythic junkyard out by Azle that Hester has seen from the highway, sprouted to the horizon with rusted junkers of the right vintage. The owner is a bit of a hermit, though, maybe even a hoarder, and he won't let Hester in to pick the bones of the rotting cars. "Maybe someday," Hester says. "I'll get in there someday."
For now you'll find Hester at his Weld House, working long after dark, hammering rusty steel and sculpting it into heirloom-quality furniture that will outlive him. He works alone, welding mask pulled down over his face to protect him from the heat. When metal melts to metal, his welding torch sends off showers of sparks. In the dim light of the shop as evening turns to night, they look like shooting stars.
The Weld House, 469-371-3243, weldhouse.com. Mailing address only: 3015 Bryan Street #1F, Dallas, Texas 75204.
artist, peace advocate
She didn't hear the gunshot that killed the stranger on her front lawn in Lakewood late one night in 2000. But for the next three years, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist Karen Blessen thought of little else but the murder of 26-year-old David McNulty. She immersed herself in chronicling the effects of that random act of violence on McNulty's family and friends, and on those who knew the perpetrators, including the killer himself. She wrote about all of it in a long article titled "One Bullet," published in 2003 in The Dallas Morning News.
After that, Blessen says, she needed a way to heal from those "three dark years" and turn her creative energies in a different, more positive direction. She began a meditation practice she still follows that requires memorization of lines of sacred texts. No more Law & Order episodes before bedtime; in fact, no more TV at all. More exercise and a healthier diet brought even more clarity.
In 2006 came what Blessen calls her "creative burst." Over several months early that year, she built a series of shoebox-sized sculptures—"happy collages," she calls them—she would title 29 Pieces. A collection of tiny assemblages and script-covered tableaux amid swatches of cloth, pieces of twig, glass, beads and wire, they contain bits of writing by mystics and religious figures such as St. Theresa of Lisieux and St. Augustine. There are lines from Psalms and from prayers in Lakota Sioux language. The first piece says this: "If the very world should stop...."