By Jackson Proskow and Brennan Leffler Global News
Published October 29, 2022
11 min read
It looks like there are body parts everywhere. That’s how Steve Butler knows he has come to the right place.
There are at least three noses on the counter. There’s a stack of eyes, and a box full of ears and fingers. In the corner, there’s the lower half of a man’s face, complete with a moustache.
“It’s like something out of a movie,” Steve says, as he looks around.
The room is a mix of a laboratory and workshop. It’s spotless. Everything has a place.
In the lobby, there are stacks of photo albums of past visitors who are just like him: people who lost a visible part of their identity, people who had nowhere else to turn.
The last time Steve went looking for help, he ended up spending a lot of money, only to be left disappointed and dejected.
Out of desperation, he started searching Google. He landed on this place, run by a man who appears to be the master of a very singular skill.
So Steve and his wife drove from West Virginia to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and now he’s sitting in an oversized barber’s chair, surrounded by all these apparent body parts, while an 80-year-old ex-spy looks at his face — specifically, his amputated left ear, and neck tissue, which were lost to a rare glandular cancer.
“A lot of my family said ‘you look fine without it,’” he explains, “but you kind of don’t feel that way.”
A large skin graft covers the area where surgeons worked so desperately to save his life. Steve hopes the man who is currently prodding at his visible wounds can give him back what he lost.
“It’s hard to be around people sometimes,” he says, fighting back tears.
To watch Robert Barron is to see a master artist at work.
His gifted hands move with remarkable precision. Each brush stroke is calculated. Each piece he sculpts is meticulously crafted, and sometimes re-crafted, to reach perfection.
Some of the tools he uses seem wildly out of place: two pasta rollers, orange peels, and dozens of large-gauge syringes filled with fluids of various colours. That’s what it takes to make this art imitate life.
Barron’s medium of choice is silicone.
His finished pieces will be worn as facial prosthetics by people who have been visibly disfigured through birth defect, disease or trauma — people like Steve Butler.
“I mastered the technique of making silicone look like skin,” explains Barron as he picks up the half-face with the moustache.
When people walk through the door, they’re often desperate. Some have told him they are suicidal. By the time they leave, their physical differences are practically invisible to the outside world.
“It’s a great psychological benefit to their mental, physical and social well-being,” Barron says. “When I go to work, I know I’m going to make a difference in someone’s life.”
John Hill drove in from Milwaukee for that exact reason.
He wanted a set of custom-made ears to hide a genetic abnormality called microtia, that had prevented his outer ears from fully forming.
He’s 56 years old, and like Steve, his attempt at getting prosthetics elsewhere was disheartening.
They didn’t fit. They didn’t match his skin. They just didn’t look right.
“Not even close, is probably the nicest thing I could say.”
He came to see Barron, hoping that for the first time in his life his body would appear whole.
“His work is fantastic,” he says, while waiting for his ears to be finished. “Seeing it in person, I mean it’s amazing.”
Some artists want fame. But if anyone spotted Robert Barron’s work, he’d consider that a failure.
That’s because his skill and attention to detail were honed in places where getting noticed could get you killed: Barron was a real-life master of disguise in the Central Intelligence Agency.
He travelled the world concealing identities at the height of the Cold War — often while concealing his own face.
He did a lot of things he still can’t talk about because they’re still classified, but what he can tell you about his life explains why virtually no one else can do what he does.
“Realism!” he proclaims, when asked what sets his work apart.
As a young man, he knew he had a special talent for replication.
He explains he could mimic songs on the piano by ear. No need for sheet music.
He once entered an oil painting into an art competition, only to find that the judges had mistaken it for a photograph and put it in the wrong exhibit. “Everything I did had to be realistic,” he says emphatically as he recalls those early days.
The walls of Barron’s office are covered in memorabilia from his remarkable career.
Above the reception desk are the works he crafted as art director for several military magazines at the Pentagon, beginning in 1967, after a stint in the Marines.
There’s a twinkle in Barron’s eye that hints at his mischievous side, which set him on the path to where he is today.
At the Pentagon, he grew tired of the daily trek to and from his car across the sprawling parking lots, and so he took up an independent art project: he stole a parking permit from a car in a prime spot, and made a perfect replica of it, right down to the punch-holes.
He never doubted his ability to forge an official document at one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the world.
“That’s a federal offence,” Barron notes, with a hint of pride. “Forging government property is a federal offence!”
It took more than a year for anyone to catch on. Barron paid a small fine, and says the presiding judge quietly congratulated him on the quality of the forgery.
A man with that kind of talent has value. Soon Barron was hauled before the brass, who presented him with an offer: a job as a senior forger with the CIA. By the early 1970s, he was posted overseas, and gradually moved into work that involved disguising American agents and informants.
What he found was primitive, to put it politely — not much better than Halloween costuming.
“We found out that we just weren’t getting enough information with beards and moustaches,” he explains.
His ability to capture reality crept back in, and he began working to build disguises that were good enough to allow agents and cooperators to change their appearance entirely, and move through foreign countries undetected.
“The disguises had to pass the closest scrutiny, just 6 to 12 inches, and if they didn’t, their life would be in jeopardy.”
Back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Barron asked to be transferred to the disguise unit permanently. He developed full face masks that could completely change someone’s appearance, right down to their ethnicity, in seconds — a process known as an identity transfer.
“They could put it on in three seconds,” he recalls, “and take it off in three seconds.”
It sounds unbelievable, but Barron laughs at comparisons to Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. “How about Mission: Posssible?” he quips.
There were other tricks of the spy trade that Barron worked on.
The “jack-in-the-box” was an inflatable full-body double that could be carried in a briefcase. An agent could hop out of the passenger seat of a car as it turned the corner, the dummy would inflate, and anyone tailing the car would think the passenger was still inside.
“One of the most sophisticated items we ever had,” Barron recalls.
Barron and the Agency were always looking to upgrade their techniques.
He went to California to learn from legends like John Chambers, the artist who developed the masks and makeup for Planet of the Apes. But Robert quickly found many of his techniques were already ahead of Hollywood’s.
In the early 1980s, the Agency asked him to attend a conference of biomedical sculptors—undercover, of course—to see if there were new techniques he could learn. That’s where he discovered a hidden world that would chart the course of the rest of his life. “I saw disfigured people that they were working on,” he recalls. “Burn survivors, people with no ears.”
He realized his skill for capturing reality could change lives.
“I said to myself, ‘If you can put people in hiding, you can bring people out of hiding.’”
That was nine years before he retired from the agency, when he was awarded a Career Intelligence medal.
Hundreds of people have since walked through the doors of Custom Prosthetic Designs.
Barron can tell stories that would make you cringe, and some that would make you cry.
There was the woman from Pakistan, whose jealous husband, a barber, took his straight razor to her face, after accusing her of looking at another man.
There’s the young girl who was attacked by a raccoon as she slept in her crib. The raccoon took both of her ears. Barron made her two new ones.
And then there was Tim Dunaway.
Dunaway’s face was crushed in a boating accident, after he struck a sandbar. The injuries and subsequent infection cost him his nose and part of his forehead. He was devastated and despondent.
One afternoon in 2003, Dunaway’s sister was watching T.V. when she saw a former spy-turned-prosthetics master on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
It was Robert Barron.
She picked up the phone to call her brother. The phone rang seven times. Dunaway answered.
“Before he answered the phone, he was in the bathtub, with a .357 magnum,” explains Barron, as he mimes putting a pistol to his head. “He almost committed suicide. When I talked to him, his voice was quivering.”
Barron talked him out of it, and built him a flawless prosthetic.
Today, Dunaway is alive, married, and still friends with the ex-spy who saved him.
When you ask Barron if he plans to retire, he always has the same answer: “How can I?”
He is booked months in advance. He still loses sleep over some of his tougher cases — including Steve Butler’s — a rare combination of prosthetic skin flap and a full ear.
Barron’s life partner Ramona works alongside him. She guides patients through every step of their journey — from their first phone call, to their first appointment in that room full of ears and noses. She maintains an extensive catalogue of before and after photos, as curator of this rare art.
Yet Barron remains uncharacteristically modest for a man of his talents and accomplishments.
“It’s not over yet,” he says, when asked to reflect back on his life and career.
He still has the passion and the commitment to realism that’s defined his art since he was a child.
“That’s the way I’m going to be until I drop,” he laughs.
Steve Butler is back at Custom Prosthetic Designs.
The previous day, he was fitted with the prosthetic, but it was still unfinished, just a beige silicone ear and flap to cover his missing skin. Still, it sat flawlessly on his face. The shape of the fake ear matched his remaining ear perfectly.
“Unbelievable,” he kept saying.
The real magic started when the master artist pulled out his paintbrushes.
Barron spent hours wearing magnifying goggles, working directly on Steve’s face — a process called “tinting” — so that the silicone would blend in with the surrounding skin. That’s what it takes to make a prosthetic appear invisible.
“Got to get the right colour,” Barron explained as he worked away.
The painted silicone was cured overnight in a specialized oven. Then the prosthetic was treated with some of Barron’s trade secrets to make it perfectly match Steve’s natural sheen and skin tone.
Now Steve sits patiently as the finished piece is covered with a medical adhesive before it’s carefully attached to the side of his face for the very first time.
In a routine Barron has done with more than 1,000 patients before, the two men stand up and walk silently from the barber’s chair, past the long counter of ears, noses, and eyes, to a large mirror in the corner of the room.
Steve takes a first glance, and struggles to find his words.
“It looks just like it did before,” he says, his voice trembling.
The man looking back at him in the mirror looks nothing like the man who endured multiple surgeries, months of treatment, and questions about his own existence.
The man looking back is his former self.
“Words don’t express it,” he says. “I got my life back.”