Made Of Metal
Hephaestus was always one of my favorite Greek gods. Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes. Strong, smart, and powerful, he forged the most infamous weapon in Greek mythology—Zeus’s Lightning Bolt—along with many other mythical oddities. Hephaestus was the epitome of strength and ingenuity, overcoming devastating odds and persevering despite his physical disfigurements. Meet Chris Hrabik, the living embodiment of Hephaestus himself. Just as Hephaestus did, Chris has risen above overwhelming odds and has mastered the art of metalworking and living life to its fullest despite partial paralysis. It’s his unwillingness to gobble up victim status and his quiet determination to help others that makes Chris a Greek god in our eyes.
We met up with Chris at his shop in Sedgewickville to see him in action. He was busy filling an art project for a client in Tennessee – you guessed it, metal flowers.
573 : Okay Chris, let’s go ahead and talk about the elephant in the metal shop… How long have you been in a wheelchair, and how did it come to be?
About 13 years ago. The July after my high school graduation, my girlfriend and I went down to Hartle’s Ford to go swimming. I was teaching her how to drive a stick on the back roads to the creek and we flipped the truck. I wasn’t wearing my seat belt and was nearly thrown, but fell back into the truck as it rolled over and settled. I was flown to St. Louis by helicopter and put in a halo. I never lost consciousness, awake through it all, and it was hours before they could sedate me. However, the most painful moment throughout the whole experience wasn’t the accident, or the waiting, or even the back and forth bumpy gurney ride from the field to the ambulance then back to the field to be loaded onto the helicopter. It was five or six weeks later when the halo pulled out. That was awful, but I’m a little glad it happened. I couldn’t move in that thing. It was like a little bird cage on my head and shoulders. When it came off, my recovery sped way up, because I could move and build my muscles back up.
573 : You don’t seem to have let any of that hold you back.
No. Actually, I probably do more now than I did before the accident. I’m not out looking for admiration by any means, I just don’t take life for granted anymore.
573 : So, what kinds of things do you like to do?
I like to do a lot of things. I’m a certified scuba diver and have done some sky diving. I hunt, fish, kayak, and race rally cars. Of course, I’ve always done those things even before the accident, except the racing. I got into that after. Before, I couldn’t see why anyone would want to get in those things. Now I love racing. Rally cars are my favorite because they combine every motor sport I like; racing, drifting, road course racing, and of course there’s the beautiful views. I enjoy racing in the Ozark Mountains. I used to hike up there all the time before my accident, and racing is a way for me to get back on those trails again. Only now I stick to the gravel ones, and take ‘em at about 100 miles an hour. That’s mainly what I like to do, that and work in my shop.
573 : How long have you had Apple Creek Metal Works?
About five years. Got the shop built and operational in 2012. I started out doing craft shows and eventually was filling orders. My clientele has steadily grown over the years by word of mouth, mostly stemming from those first few shows. I get a lot of repeat and referred customers.
573 : When did you know you wanted to work with metal?
In 2011, my sister was getting married and I was too poor to buy her a present. Her favorite flower is the sunflower; in fact, the wedding was full of them. So, I borrowed a welder and a torch and I used a scrap satellite dish and the fender off of her old Volkswagon Beetle to make her a big sunflower. It’s honestly the ugliest thing I ever made, but she loved it. And I liked making it. After that I started using metal fabrication to supplement my income while in between jobs. Within about six months or so I realized that there really weren’t any other jobs I wanted to do. This is kind of perfect for me. I make my own schedule, I enjoy what I do, and if I don’t feel up for work, the boss is real understanding!
573 : What kinds of things do you make?
Well, the best way to put it is, we do what the big metal fabrication companies don’t do. Custom gates and signs, agricultural feeders, sculptures, projects that combine metal and woodworking, small repair and restoration jobs, just about anything. If you can dream it, we can build it!
573 : So, what is it you’re working on today?
Calla Lilies. They’ll be going down to Nashville this weekend. They wanted a flower garden that won’t die. I said, I can do that!
573 : Who do you have helping you today?
This is Alex, my apprentice. He’s been here almost a year. He’s a good student. Picks stuff up pretty quick, and real creative. He’s good help… as long as he doesn’t sit down and fall asleep.
573 : When I called to schedule this interview, you had said that you were unavailable for the first dates I mentioned because you were mentoring at a youth camp for the disabled. Can you tell me more about that?
Oh, yeah. It’s called the Youth Leadership Forum. It’s a week long event for kids with mental and physical disabilities. It teaches them leadership skills and builds confidence. It’s a great place and really seems to have a positive impact on them. In fact, many of the Delegates (students) end up coming back as Mentors when they’re older. The first couple times I went up, I just went for the day to do my thing, but the last few years I’ve stayed up there with them for a few days. Sticking around like that lets them know I care and gives me a chance to learn from them as well. This was my fifth year. It’s wonderful. I’m humbled by those kids every year, and that’s what I love the most about it. I learn more and more about their disabilities and the creativity and ingenuity behind how they overcome them. They all have their own way of communicating, and I love getting the chance to learn their language.
573 : What do you hope to do in the future?
Large scale sculptures. And I’m talking LARGE. For my first big sculpture, I’m planning on building a battle scene from Star Wars in my yard. It’ll be to scale, but that will still mean a 20 foot long X-Wing fighter. The battle will be made up of three ships total. An X-Wing fighter, a TIE/LN fighter, and the Millennium Falcon coming out of the “clouds” to intercept. Other than that, I want to continue on and expand. I want to continue to race, expand my business and public speaking skills, and keep teaching the younger generation. After all, they are the future.