Edge Life is a periodic CultureMap column that chronicles unusual people with uncommon passion. People out on that thin ridge of life where not many of us have the courage, conviction or will to reach — let alone stay.
Me [interrupting]: "Dude, I'm hanging up"
Fellow CultureMapper: "She uses it to raise money for charities — good causes and all that."
Me [sighing]: "Fine, fine, I don't see it as 'Edge Life', but I'll give her a call."
So I called Cindi Harwood Rose, Houston's professed and obsessed silhouette artist — a passion spanning 40 years, with as stated, a world record in cutting more individual human silhouettes in one hour (144 to be exact) than anyone else on the planet.
Indeed, over the phone, Ms. Rose recounted celebrities, politicians and other notables and a list of charitable events that through her silhouette art have produced a fair and worthy mass of social good. Of course, one brief phone conversation was not enough for me to decide if she qualified for Edge Life.
I had to get past the obvious: an attractive well-to-do socialite (a label she summarily rejects); wife of renowned plastic surgeon Franklin Rose; and mother to a son, Ben, and daughter, Erica, Houston's celebrated reality TV star and recent guest of Dr. Phil along with Cindi.
"How about lunch at my house?" she offered. Owing it to readers of this column, I accepted in search of a story.
"I don't eat out often" she told me as we munched a fresh, uber-healthy lunch prepared in her Iron Chef of a kitchen. "I just enjoy cooking so much that I prefer dining at home."
And it showed, our lunch could have been served by any of Houston's finer restaurants; with seasonings that only come from a true joie de vie for cooking.
Fortified and with small talk quickly turning to real, we toured the house, stopping at her artworks ... a series of waypoints navigating to the inner artist of Cindi Rose. As we walked and talked, I wondered if this was a well-worn path: perhaps her standard house tour? Or was she opening herself up to me with trust and sincerity?
All the while I struggled to mute the art critic in me wanting to comment on the quality of her art. The temptation that comes from artists sharing their works for all to see and surmise ... where we all fancy ourselves as experts.
Mind you, this was not a tour of the thousands of silhouettes she has created in her lifetime: Rich, antique black paper cutouts of the likes of Elvis and Liberace to just last month Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who the Roses entertained in their home.
On the contrary, it was a display of paintings, sculptures, pottery and other works she has produced since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Fine Arts; further influenced by study at institutions in Paris, Aspen and New York City.
For every piece of artwork, she offered a detailed story describing its meaning and the inspiration behind it. Testimonies to the people, places and things she wished to memorialize within the confines of her Houston home. But neither an artist displaying her life's work nor talking about its meaning is unusual.
What did strike me as unusual about the artwork of Cindi Harwoord Rose was in what it did and did not reflect. It reflected a desire and discipline to express herself — the process to "be" an artist. Yet that desire was not reflected by any coherent artistic identity in her works; only emulations of others.
But again, this is not unusual. All artists emulate styles as a way of finding their own. It is a normal part of any artist's journey.
I shared my observation with Cindi who paused and contemplated it for a moment. Without defensiveness or insult, she confided that cutting silhouettes may well be a comfort zone for her; not just because of what she says is a "God given" talent, but because of the deep, personal satisfaction she gets from using it to promote the Rose Ribbon Foundation, an institution established in 1997 that provides free reconstructive surgery to post-cancer patients who are not able to afford health insurance.
Hearing her say this made me wonder if for a while now, her dedication to this larger cause has come at some personal sacrifice to her artistic journey.
"Holly was my inspiration," she told me.
When her sister, Holly Harwood Skolkin, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer (too late for a mastectomy) in 1997, Cindi was inspired by Holly's will to fight, a will that has continued for 13 years. From this grew Cindi's desire to help other women fight breast cancer with special recognition of the importance of their feeling complete to the success of such a fight.
As Holly told me during a phone interview, "when a person has a life threatening illness, it makes your priorities crystal clear. It's not like you want to climb Kilimanjaro or anything, you just want to be with loved ones and feel normal."
Fair enough I thought and since Holly's ordeal launched a foundation to help others like her, I wanted to talk to someone whose life has been impacted by it.
I tracked down Teresa Marroquin, one of many cancer survivors who has received help from the Rose Ribbon Foundation. She told me that "when you finish cancer treatment you are happy and thankful to still be alive, but every time you are in front of a mirror and look at your body you feel frustrated by what has happened ... your life changes."
Marroquin went on to explain that "you cannot even wear a swim suit or a party dress with confidence ... the Rose Ribbon Foundation gave me a new body and helped me build my self esteem."
Let me confess: the original seduction of this story was to assess Ms. Rose's rigor as an artist. As some kind of self-qualified judge, I would decide if she was pursuing her art with an edge worthy of writing about. After meeting her, I realized that I was looking for the wrong edge.
It goes like this: Ms. Rose continues to do this work when in fact she could do anything else or nothing much at all. And for me or anyone else to assess her motivation misses the point that like her art, the silhouette of Cindi Rose is cut from her shapes as an artist, wife, mother, socialite and philanthropist.
So it is the layering of all these shapes that I think do in fact come together to produce her edge: one where for decades now, she, through her foundation, has helped women find normalcy in a suddenly terrifying and abnormal world.
On this I give her sister Holly the last word, "after so many years of battling cancer with Cindi and her family by my side the whole way, I know how beautiful and loving she is in her heart ... this is the Cindi I know."