Portrait of the Past

updated 09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/04/2000 01:00AM

In Charlotte, N.C., Hezekiah Alexander's is an illustrious name. He was a leader of the American Revolution and has hundreds of descendants living in the area. But while his legacy lives on, his image does not. There are no known Hezekiah Alexander portraits. No one has a clue what he looked like.

That posed something of a problem for the Charlotte Museum of History, which happens to be located next to Alexander's 1774 stone house and wants to place a sculpture of him nearby. The museum turned to local graphic artist Josh Cavalier, 30, a former medical illustrator who found a way—he thinks—to conjure Alexander's face from beyond the grave. Using detailed photographs of direct Alexander descendants, Cavalier analyzed the family's features, selected the dominant traits and then, using a computer program, morphed the photos into a composite image of how Hezekiah likely looked. "At first I was skeptical," he admits, "but after I got feedback from the family, I thought, 'Wow! Maybe we've got something here!' " It's not exact, he admits, but it's close enough to be the basis for a sculpture. "We are looking for a representation, not a dead ringer."

Museum board member Walter Klein believes Cavalier's technology will allow anyone to line their dining room with plausible portraits of ancestors. "They'll get so close to that great-grandfather they'll think they can touch him," he says.

Not everyone thinks it's such a swell idea. "It's ridiculous," says forensic anthropologist Midori Albert of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "You don't know what's in these men's genotype." But Ted Alexander, 62, a direct descendant of Hezekiah, doesn't care. "It's better," he says, "than no picture at all."

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