Texas, Thrice Upon A Year

A  couple weeks ago some ways outside of Austin, a table full of artists (and artist adjacents) whose minds were over full of very specific measurements sat down for some Tex-Mex, and in doing so learned a new measurement system for queso: “So, the small is like, a small- and the large, well it’s like, a large”. I pass this knowledge on to you, dear reader, in case you should ever need to know how much queso to order.

Tips for traveling in Texas:

This year has brought me an unprecedented number of trips to Texas. In the span of 8 months I doubled my lifetime record of visits to the Lone Star state, and each trip has been markedly different from the last. Thanks to my newfound acquaintance with the state, I thought I would make a handy list for other outsiders who might make a pilgrimage soon:

  • Forget that you have a diet plan and eat all the Tex Mex- do not pass on the queso, large or small (but who are we kidding, they’re both large in any other place).
  • When doing hotel laundry, don’t trust 19 year olds with matching Mustangs (for real) with your favorite shirt, they will give it to another guest and promptly forget they were involved. Do trust the grandmother who works night shifts, she will track it down, and make sure it actually gets washed.
  • Bring bugspray- it’s been 2 weeks and all I want is a time machine and some DEET for my poor feet.
  • Don’t tell people you think the weather feels nice, they will fight you on this, so far this has happened through 3 seasons, so the Spring is either the sweet spot, or Texans seemingly hate their weather year round.

The Right Face

All three of my trips this year have featured very valuable learning time under Karen T. Taylor, who literally wrote the book on Forensic Art. Two out of three of these trips have been to the FACTS (Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State) facility, and on both trips I have had the great joy of totally freezing in the presence of Karen and an arachnid- this time it was a scorpion, and I stopped in my tracks, glass eyes in hand (it was like 20 feet away, I was fine).

This last workshop was centered on Forensic Facial Reconstruction- creating an approximation of an individual’s face in life using their skull, knowledge of anatomy, scientific data collected from studies of tissue depth across many populations, and a whole lot of other things that entire books have been written to explain this process in depth. A couple days after I got home, I was having a session of FriendTV (video calling- we live in the future!) with one of my closest friends. I was telling him about the excitements of my trip and very vaguely explaining what I was doing in this class when he asked me an interesting question, “Yeah, but how do you know it’s the right face?”- the answer to that question in long form lies in the aforementioned books, but the short answer is- an artist can’t just guess.

One of the most most important things to learn about forensic art is the balance that needs to be found between science and art in order for results to be achieved. My friend’s question reminded me of how this is explained so succinctly by Betty Pat Gatliff, the Matriarch of forensic art in America. In Karen’s class, she discusses the concept of ‘academic lineage’, and often shares memories and quips from her friend and mentor, who she refers to simply as Betty Pat. The way these stories are relayed, I almost forget I am listening to one of the foremost minds in forensic art, and I am just delighted by the gumption and humor that shines through in these remembered conversations. When I first heard the quote illustrated above, (“I could put a face on a rock, doesn’t mean it would be the right face.”), I understood that in this field, the artist is meant to check their ego at the door, sit down, and let the scientists help them find the right face (her phrasing is way more fun). In this way, forensic art is an applied art, somewhat akin to technical illustration- it is no surprise that Betty Pat Gatliff was a medical illustrator prior to her work in forensics. None of this work can happen without a partnership between artist and scientist- whether that is a forensic anthropologist, a forensic odontologist, a forensic pathologist, or some combination of the three. Forensic artists need as much factual input as possible to do their work, because it should never be a totally artistic ‘guess’. The individuals who are waiting to be identified, and the family and friends who are waiting to find out what happened to them, deserve better than that.

Outside of the literal technical details, of exactly how you find ‘the right face’, it all starts with training. In the following pictures, I’ll explore a little bit of what my experience training in forensic facial reconstruction has been like, from the whimsical (Vicky the Farm Dog) to the sublime (acres and acres of Texas rolling out around you).

Training involves not just learning the textbook details, but how to use your best judgement to blend the scientific and artistic processes at play to make a reconstruction as lifelike as possible.

The finished reconstruction
I feel very privileged to have attended this most recent workshop, and highly encourage anyone interested in the field to be sure you are receiving proper training. This is not a ‘DIY’ field, just because there isn’t a college degree for it in the US. It is also not a profession to be entered into lightly, these are real people with real families, and not to be used as an outlet for you to feel like you’re doing something ‘cool’ or ‘edgy’. /schoolmarm rant over.

Summer of Science

In August I had the pleasure of speaking at a Portland event called Summer of Science, currently hosted by Becky Olson. I was introduced to the event a handful of years ago, and it is a peak Portland experience- a night of mini science lectures hosted in the open air, all centered around a theme. I had the privilege of creating a presentation to share for the Death night this year, my talk was sandwiched between a Particle Physicist addressing the heat death of the universe and dark matter, and a woman who organizes ‘Death Cafe’s’ in Portland- an event centered on frank discussions about death and dying.

I chose to speak about the branches of Forensic Art that I am most passionate about and I find are most generally misunderstood or unknown to the public- forensic facial reconstruction and post mortem depictions. I gave a very general overview covering definitions and applications in which they are to be used, as well as some statistics about unknown deceased in the US and Oregon. You can view the presentation here.

One of the most interesting parts of the Q&A session following my presentation was something that I hear fairly frequently, that I felt better prepared to address after having attended this year’s International Association for Identification conference- the question is this- why can’t we just have a computer do this? It seems that generally, the public seems to believe that a) computers are more powerful than they are and b) no one should really have to do this work (I think this may be the actual impulse behind wanting computers to be more competent than they are). What I had supposed previously, and found scientific back up for at this year’s IAI conference, is that computers are best utilized as tools by humans. While it may be that one day, a computer can be taught to do more of the calculations and time consuming busy work involved in facial reconstructions or post mortem depictions, the truth is still that you need a human to make highly nuanced decisions based on what we are excellent at – which is recognizing faces and what makes them human to us.

There is a term in the forensics community at large called the ‘CSI Effect’, which is basically that the public may have inflated or distorted expectations of what technology is capable of within forensic disciplines. This is where the idea of me putting traditional clay into an actual sculpture becomes somewhat baffling to a lay person, when they may have seen on TV that a perfect face can be presented digitally at the click of a button. Recent research seems to show that traditional art may be easier for people to recognize than digital art or rather that highly plastic looking digital renderings can be improved for recognition by the application of texture, more akin to traditional art (this specific research was presented by Kathryn Smith of FaceLab LJMU). This seems to be due to the way our brains are wired, and the ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect, which implies that it is easier for our brains to fill in the gaps in traditional art than to think abstractly about something that looks close to human, but for some reason is just not human enough for us to feel comfortable with it. One of the problems that is being studied currently is whether or not it is too difficult for people to recognize a face that is presented photo-realistically due to the assumption viewers tend to make that a photo should be a perfect representation, whereas with a drawing or sculpture, there is room to make judgement calls about how much a depiction may resemble the target face.

Femme + Function

Recently I was tasked with creating a portrait of Chien Shiung-Wu for a show centered on influential women in the history of science. The show went up this week at The Brigade, raising money for Girls, Inc. and providing a venue for some spunky high school girls from St Mary’s to show off their team-made robot. Portraiture is one of my first loves, and it was a fun prompt to also combine that with my love of science.

Chien Shiung-Wu was a Chinese-American Nuclear Physicist who is hailed as the “First Lady of Physics”. She was active in the mid-twentieth century, she contributed to the Manhattan Project, as well as disproving the law of conservation of parity (to be real-real, I don’t actually know what that means). You can read more about her life and work here.

 

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