Recently I had the opportunity to spend a week out at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (F.A.C.T.S) to attend Karen Taylor’s course, “Drawing To Depict The Deceased For Identification”. I’ve spent the last 6 months doing what I can to study and prepare for this course, which I’ve talked about in previous posts. While I’m glad I got my practice reconstructions done in December, there is really nothing like hands on training under the guidance of a professional. There were 19 other attendees to the course, and I definitely learned a lot from them as well. One of the most incredible parts of the course in fact was the diversity of the group- we had professionals from many walks of life outside of forensic art, as well as being an internationally diverse group.
I was fortunate to have what I will happily claim as the most interesting carpool; every morning before class I met with Kamar and Mariana, from Lebanon and Mexico respectively, who were kind enough to meet me in the middle at an excellent little cafe in Downtown San Marcos. I have so much respect for these two women, and I was absolutely humbled to be around such dedicated and driven individuals. Both of them were brave enough to attend an art focused class outside of their typical vocations- forensic anthropology and forensic odontology, but that kind of bravery might be small potatoes compared to the tenacity they have shown to get where they are in their professions already at relatively young ages.
Of course, the entire class was full of individuals with fascinating backgrounds and new perspectives to add to the mix. I can now say I’ve met not just one real live Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, but three! They were all super nice, though one of them would argue that not all Canadians are nice- but I think he’s just trying to defend the curmudgeons of the north, which really is nice, so I think that proves the point.
One of our most cooperative moments came late in the course, when we had the opportunity to take a tour of the ‘body farm’, located some distance away on the ranch we were studying on. There are a few rules to follow when visiting such a facility- one of the strictest being no cameras, this is obviously out of respect for the individuals who selflessly donated their remains to this research facility. Another rule that might not be as obvious from the outside is the need for protective booties to be worn over visitor’s shoes- to protect the data being gathered at the facility. I admired the organic creation of balance lines between classmates so that we could all get our booties on without falling over.
The tour was led by one of the Master’s candidates at F.A.C.T.S, she was generous with her knowledge and very kind about answering questions that might seem obvious to an anthropologist, but could mystify an outsider to thanatological studies (that gigantic word is absolutely thanks to the comic I recently started working on, which I will explain below, I just really like using ‘thanatology’ now that I can). The facility contained remains in every state from skeletonization and mummification to fresh and active decay. Though it is not the oldest facility in the US, it is the largest, and the data they are gathering will help scientists and investigators answer important questions about time since death. I came away from the tour with a profound sense of respect, not only for the students and researchers doing this work, but for the donors and their families, who made a choice to help advance science despite the traditions and ceremony surrounding the typical American death.
Learning how to use art as a tool to aid in recognition of the dead.
After such an intense and packed week of learning, I don’t think I can fully unspool my thoughts on what I learned in this class yet, but I will do my best. There is also a lot that for sensitivity’s sake, I just can’t share about what this work really entails, suffice to say, you definitely have to want to do this work. The week was split into two portions, post-mortem drawing, and facial reconstruction. What that basically breaks down to, is drawing from soft tissue, or recreating what the soft tissue of a face may have looked like, in reference to a skull. Both aim to convey what an individual may have resembled in life, though an important note to make is that no forensic art is meant to be an exact or artistic portrait. These portraits are meant to trigger recognition, not to be a perfect representation of the individual in life.
I think the biggest takeaway I could name from this class is the importance of training. There are just so many variables involved in working as a forensic artist, and so much is riding on what you create- forensic art is typically the last resort for unidentified deceased individuals. To do this work without proper training and knowledge is to potentially rob the individuals you may be trying to help of a chance to be reunited with their identities. This isn’t a line of work to get into because it ‘looks cool’, or because you like drawing and think it might be a nice change. The people doing this work, my classmates and colleagues in the field, are dedicated to helping individuals and the people who love them to find an answer. In order to do this work, you need a solid understanding of anatomy (skeletal and muscular), the changes a body undergoes after death, how to properly handle evidence and be part of an investigation (no going rogue) and art technique. This may sound like an admonition, but more than anything else I learned this week I came to understand better the gravity of these techniques and what it means to do it right.
Making Comics To Make A Point
What happens when an artist and a scientist get tired of seeing bad science in memes.
By happy accident in early January, I came to be introduced to a Forensic Scientist in Sweden with whom I had a huge gripe in common- bad science memes floating around Facebook. My now co-author and scientific collaborator, Lexanne, posted to a forensics group we are both a part of complaining about the ‘Phil’s Niece’ meme, asking if everyone else as as sick of it as she was. The answer was a resounding YES- because the science to debunk the fear was so clear cut and simple, but the general public just doesn’t know it. The question was, could hair donated via haircut to a wig, like Locks of Love, possibly implicate the donor in a future crime? I thought I knew why not, but I asked the scientists in the group to explain it to me simply just in case I was wrong, and I created this in response:
The next day, Lexanne reached out to me to ask if I would be interested in working with her to illustrate other forensic science quandaries like the wig question. I had been hoping someone would want to partner with me on this, and I absolutely hit the jackpot with a parter like Lexanne. We both immediately began compiling ideas, asking our community what frustrated them most to hear, and researching and drawing as fast as we could and we’ve been working furiously away at it since. In the last month since we began publishing the comic we have heard from teachers and professionals in the field asking if they could share it with their students and colleagues- speaking for myself I can only say I am completely bowled over by the reaction so far. I don’t have much else to say for this yet, except that creating it is a total delight and I think the best surprise I’ve run into in a long time.