Embracing the Wisdom of Cats (No, not those CATS)

Embracing the Wisdom of Cats

It is the night before 2020, and all through the house, a creature was stirring who has no idea what in the hell to do with a mouse. Or a spider. Or normal cat toys. I started the last decade with this little orange cat, and we are ringing in the next one together tonight as well, with some new friends and family in tow. Currently she is walking across the dining room table, rubbing her face on the orange roses that sit in front of me, as I try to reflect on the last year, or decade, in a coherent way. Like any respectable cat, Leeloo abhors work, especially if it is mine to accomplish. She would rather I work harder at patting her, but not right now, but please don’t go away, stay here, but over there. The cat is the ficklest at boss I have ever had, and that is saying something. We do our best to keep her happy, leaving out cardboard boxes, giving her just enough wet food, and perhaps too many treats. We have to keep her away from tape, and crunchy plants, because she will eat them, get irritated by eating them, and then try to eat more crispy crunchy forbidden snacks, in a bid to throw up the first.

I don’t know where I mean to go, with this meditation on the cat, but I suppose it has something to do with her constant nature. The last decade has brought a lot of change, that has largely not affected her, besides a handful of eventful (terrifying for her) car rides, that brought her to a new place in which to receive cardboard boxes and hunt down any scraps of tape or plastic in said new location. While the cat has remained largely the same, besides a little shifting of her fat from her little kitty hips, down to her little kitty belly, I have learned and grown so much with her.

She is a fearless explorer, the first to leap into any open cabinet, closet, basement or bathroom that she may have momentary access to. She is unafraid of the consequences, and will ask for help, if she somehow ends up somewhere unpleasant- say, locked in a hall closet. She listens to the needs of her own personal clock, sleeping when she needs it (for hours on end), and zooming about when she needs to burn off excess energy (thankfully this is usually in short, but ecstatic bursts). She is unafraid to make her needs known- typically choosing the furthest accessible location from me that is acoustically suitable for her yowls to bounce around in. It is my job to guess what the yowls mean- even though we don’t speak the same language, she trusts that I will figure it out, and I usually do.

In 2020, I’d like to be more like my cat. I would like to leap before I look more often. I’d like to sleep when I feel like sleeping, and zip around when I feel like I’ve been a little too slovenly. I would like to stare out the windows more, and cuddle up in my favorite chair with the person I love. I will however, refrain from eating tape and plastic, as I know better about that, but perhaps there are other things I could avoid. I’d like to go where I’m led, even if I have to sit through a scary car ride (or gondola, or helicopter) to get there. I’d like to learn how to trust that the world will be cozy and loving, and that my people will always come back. I’d like to be better about asking for help when I feel stuck. I’d like to learn to step back from work a little more, so I can enjoy my life as it happens. I hope in this next decade we can all accept ourselves as gracefully as the cat seems to- as far as I know, she isn’t bothered by her shifting kitty belly, or her waning levels of energy. She isn’t a kitten anymore, sure, but who ever said that was the only way to be a cat?

Happy 2020, wherever you are, and whoever you are. May we all nap a little more, work a little less, and enjoy our lives, as they come.

It Could Happen to You

State of Grace vol 4 issue 20

If you know me, you know I’m a planner. I love to plan! Board meetings, dinner parties, holidays, where my career might take me, how to get to the next step in said career- I love to look ahead and think of what might be. I love my plans, and I love sticking to my plans like a dog with a bone, but sometimes, life has other ideas.

Last year, my plan was something along the lines of ‘stay the course’. I’d created a book, I taught my first class at a forensics conference, I gave a public science talk, and after all these things, I went home to my studio apartment and my cat. I was feeling like I was doing OK as a single lady, I had friends, a nephew to dote on and projects aplenty to keep me busy.

This last year, friends, has NOT gone according to plan. I am not teaching this year, I have made no books, I am not filling a sketchbook a month, I am not where I thought I would be. What I did do, however, has been bigger than I could have dreamt up all on my own. This year, I moved in with the love of my life, I got hired for a super swank design position, I quit that super swank design position when I realized a 3 hour daily commute is actually insane, I got engaged to my high school sweetheart, and next week we will be wrapping up the final stages in buying our first home- it has more than one room! It’s in Wisconsin! None of this was in my plan!

My life, faith, and future have been transformed by the surprises I had not seen coming my way. I needed to learn that change is change, good or bad, it takes time to adjust to. I’ve spent the majority of this year on a near social media blackout, because I haven’t known how to put words to the immense changes in my life. I know I don’t owe anyone an explanation for where I’ve been- but I do feel I owe it to anyone who might be feeling like… when is it going to happen to me?

So many of us work hard to keep up a happy face, make our plans, and try to make something happen, while inside, we are hurting, and wondering when it’s ‘our turn?’ I can’t tell you when it’s coming, but I know it is. I never could have foreseen the adventure that was hurtling towards me, while I spent my mornings at the Dragonfly Cafe, studying, sketching, and trying to make a change in my life. I am of the opinion now that to some degree, this is out of our hands, and the best we can do is try to be ready to say ‘Yes’ when a door is opened, to step through it, even if we don’t know where it leads.

2 days after my last post (in early October of 2018), I got a message from the one person whose name has set my heart racing since I was just 14. He’d been my first love, and the greatest adventure partner of my younger years. I thought of him often, though we seldom talked- both of us had married other people in our twenties. I had married and quickly divorced- this is not something I’m proud of, but it’s something I find important to be honest about. After he married, I didn’t have the heart to keep our social media ties active, it hurt a tender spot deep down every time I saw his face or name. We kept in light touch, sending each other art or music we thought the other would enjoy, and so it went last October, until he asked if he might visit me in Portland. I can’t tell his story for him, but suffice to say, his marriage hadn’t worked out either, and due to my social media blackout, I’d been none the wiser.

I picked him up at the airport the day after he sent that message. While I was still wondering if this visit ‘meant something’, I couldn’t help but feel that after not seeing each other for 8 years, picking him up from the airport felt as natural as anything, as if we were back in college visiting each other for breaks. It felt like no time had passed at all. We fell easily into conversation, while I got us thoroughly lost in Portland, missing every correct turn while we gabbed away.

Three months later, we were sitting in the cab of a U-Haul, twisting through the redwoods late at night during a rain storm, while my cat yowled in helpless indignation, towing my car and all my worldly possessions behind us.

Time is funny, because three months can feel like an awfully short amount of time when it’s just day to day life, but when it’s tacked on to 15 years of hopes and dreams, it can feel like another three years. We’ve talked many times about how nuts this timeline might seem from the outside, and I know some of my connections in Portland are only now discovering that I jumped ship on the land of early retirement, but just like picking Jacob up at the airport after an 8 year gap- it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

By May, we found ourselves on a recon trip to the Badger State- Wisconsin. We’d singled it out from a long list of prospects, because shocking though it may be, our visions of an ideal life do not include living in a high rise apartment or tripping over poop of unknown origins in the city (the Bay Area has changed a lot since my last stint here in 2011-2013). I had been doing my research for what felt like ages, but was probably 2 months, by which time I had singled out Appleton, Wisconsin. It sits on 2 lakes, and a river, and is spitting distance to Lake Michigan, Milwaukee and Green Bay- this translates to: art museums and nature, my basic building blocks of ‘the good life’. We wanted to see if Wisconsin was a place we could see ourselves in.

We had scheduled a meeting with a realtor (just in case), after I had fallen for a tiny 1890’s cottage off a park and a stream near the main drag in town. It turned out that the cottage was actually off the market (if you’re looking for a house, don’t get hung up on Zillow, call a realtor for accurate listings), but we wanted to see what else might be out there. After discovering a ‘Mid Century Modern’ specialist, we figured it couldn’t hurt to see what she could find, and if we hated the state on arrival, we wouldn’t waste her time. Luckily for all of us, we were immediately enamored. Milwaukee is beautiful, even the parts that aren’t for show, the regular working class neighborhoods, and industrial side streets- it is orderly and clean in an unreal kind of way. By the time we’d driven through 90 miles of farmland to sweet little Appleton, on the river, I was done for.

I take back what I said about Zillow partially- because the house we found was one we had picked originally before talking to the MidMod Whisperer- but there was another house that we thought was going to be the home run. We set up our viewings in what we thought was the order of interest, saving the fireworks for last. What we discovered however, was that the first house, our Zillow discovery, was so much more perfect than we could have imagined.

From the pictures, it looked like we’d have to rip out the carpets and scrub the walls, it all looked faintly dingy, and possibly smoky. What we discovered was an immaculately kept, single owner home, with surprisingly clean, white carpets, and only one spot of less than ideal wallpaper. As we toured the house, we found ourselves remarking how we would use each space- this corner for my forensic art studio, this area for your gym (friends, my better half bought his own gym as a bachelor, it’s heavy and big, but it beats the hell out of an XBox). The orange carpeted basement was a huge plus.

The second house gave me hoarder house flashbacks and smelled of cats and mildew (though it had a beautiful original 60’s oven), and the ‘fireworks’ house simply wasn’t our house. It was much larger than we’d expected, and we actually got lost in it while touring. It also sat not 40 feet from active train tracks in the backyard. I wanted to love it for the wacky gold lurex wallpaper, but I just couldn’t see myself there. It was not my yard, not my art studio, not our house. Whoever does buy it is getting the most magnificent Japanese Magnolia out front, however.

We talked about it with the realtor, we chewed on it together, and all the while, Jacob was sneakily strategizing with our AirBnB host for plans I was none the wiser about. In the end, we both saw ourselves in that first house, that we’d nearly discounted, all because the photos were badly edited. We learned about the first owner, and her love of Christmas, and her loyal support of the high school football team that plays around the corner. I’m not sure if you’ll find me out in the stands as much, but I can get behind some good old holiday baking and hosting. That night we worked out a letter to the sellers, sons of our home’s original owner, telling them how much we appreciated the character of the home as it is, and how we hope to take as good of care of it as their mother did. There might not be many people who see orange carpet and wood paneling as a major plus, but we definitely fall into that category. From the pink tile in the bathroom to the flower power shelf liners in the kitchen, this house is right up our alley.

The funny thing about plans is, sometimes they don’t work out, and sometimes they work out in a way you never could have imagined. When we were in high school, and I thought of our future together, I always thought about being with Jacob’s family at Christmas. His family threw a huge, happy, and completely lovely Posada every year- I think I got to go to two of them. I would imagine us as adults, coming back to the Posada, maybe even one day bringing our own kids… I held that idea very deep in my heart, I didn’t even tell Jacob until this past year how much that had meant to me. It ran so deep, that after we broke up, even celebrating Christmas at all felt impossible. I ran so hard in the other direction to avoid that pain, that I converted to a whole other religion. It sounds like an over the top Hallmark Channel movie, but even they couldn’t get away with that. I celebrated my first Christmas in 8 years (in my home, not just visiting family) this year, and knowing how much it had meant to the woman who owned our home seemed like a good sign to me.

As for Jacob’s plans that trip, I can’t begin to know what a Laurel and Hardy episode he was living on the down low, as he had an engagement ring shipped just in the knick of time to our AirBnB, only to have the host miss the package and have it sent back to the post office. While I spent the day we made our offer on the house daydreaming about guest room plans and holiday hosting, he was trying to figure out how to discreetly get to the post office, and find the right moment, all the while assuming I was totally on to him. Folks, I am so gullible that in the end, he had me believing he’d bought me an umbrella, and even though it hadn’t rained, maybe we should pick it up at the post office anyway? So when he told me to open up my present back at the AirBnB, I thought nothing of getting into my pajamas first before plopping down on the couch with the now-I-realize-far-too-light-for-an-umbrella padded envelope. I certainly wasn’t expecting him to drop down on one knee, and my brain went into a full blown frenzy trying to understand why I was wearing pajamas when he was saying all these wonderful things that my brain was too occupied analyzing my pajamas to process. I had to ask him to repeat himself later, so I could commit it to memory.

This year has not gone according to my plans, at all. I never could have laid the groundwork for such an adventure by myself, I could not have anticipated how much my life would change, starting with a ping on my phone during the workday.

I’m writing here, from the living room of our apartment in Oakland, with a coffee table scattered with books and wedding planning crafts. This weekend, we fly back to Wisconsin to finalize the sale of our first home. My life is nearly unrecognizable compared to last year- except that the cat is napping on my favorite blanket, as usual. I’m sharing this with you, not because I want to brag about a house, or show off this crazy shiny ring, but because a year ago I never thought any of this would happen for me. If you’re in a place where you think your dreams are impossible, or that nothing is going right… I just want to ask you to believe that good things can happen, even after long hard seasons, the seasons will change, it’s what they’re meant to do.

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.


IAI 2018 Recap

My most recent trip to Texas was a true test of my will and endurance– could I possibly drink the last of that very-yummy-but-very-thick spiced date juice? Did I really need all those eggs? Is there room for one more piece of shrimp? How many lattes can one woman possibly drink in one week? I found the answers to these questions to be ‘yes’ and ‘I don’t know, but I’m awake now’. This was my second trip to Texas this year, this time for the International Association for Identification’s 103rd Annual Educational Conference, hosted this year in sunny San Antonio. My trip began and ended with displays of hospitality beyond anything I’ve had the fortune to experience before. Texans, native and temporary, really know what’s what. Just saying, the rest of us could really step up our games.

I landed in Austin on Sunday at 5:30 AM, 3:30 Portland time. I only understood why everyone was so concerned about my flight times about the time I hit security at PDX the night before. Fortunately for me, a sweet friend invited me to join her for a home cooked Lebanese breakfast in San Marcos before continuing on to San Antonio. I’ll just say, you haven’t lived until you’ve been stuffed to the gills with omelette and cheese and fruit and date juice and cappuccino (and and and) while half travel-delirious. I’m surprised she didn’t need to roll me out the front door. I don’t think I ate for the rest of the day. I’m still not over this breakfast- did you know you can put cinnamon and black pepper in eggs and it’s the most excellent thing?

Continuing the ‘International” theme, I was fortunate enough to set up base camp for the week with Kathryn, a colleague from Liverpool by way of South Africa, in an excellent little bungalow that came equipped with a proper hanging out porch, and some delightfully questionable decor. For example, a french bulldog statue in a sombrero, a bevy of Venetian masks and a lenticular Marilyn Monroe portrait that watched over my bed. As a team of non-natives we availed ourselves of many distinct pleasures not found in our hometowns. Shopping at the HEB in particular was a joy, and I felt like a salty veteran when I was able to advise against the ‘Crazy Water’. The crazy thing about crazy water is that it mostly tastes like dirty feet (I learned this lesson on my first trip in February of this year, where I bought two bottles on the strength of the name and finished half of one {also I feel like I have to apologize to the makers of Crazy Water, it’s just really really not my thing, you do you, feet water people}). If you’re going to HEB (or any number of froofy coffee shops in Portland), Topo Chico is the superior mineral water. While the hotels were beautiful and convenient, there’s nothing like constantly getting lost because you’ve been talking over your GPS to really give you the flavor of a town. I officially love San Antonio.

Casa Rio, on the San Antonio Riverwalk- one of my favorite places!

The Conference

The International Association for Identification (IAI) sums up their yearly conference as follows, “The IAI conference is the largest organized event in the world for education and training in the fields of Latent Print, Footwear and Tire Track, Blood Stain Pattern, Forensic Photography, Forensic Art, Facial Identification, Biometric, and Crime Scene Evidence”. This basically amounts to hordes of professionals descending on a convention center in search of training, lectures, coffee, and some much needed shop talk with colleagues from all over the world, and if you’re very lucky, some serious travel-fatigue induced giggle fits.

Among the lectures I attended, two outside of the forensic art discipline really stand out in my memory. One for the challenge, and one for the uplifting novelty. The first was led by Dr. Abimilec Morales Quiroz, regarding the identification and exhumation process of a pair of clandestine mass graves in Tetelcingo, Morelos, Mexico. Upon entering the room, I was greeted by Dr. Morales Quiroz with, “Habla Español?”, after my stomach dropped into my shoes, I replied “Hablo un poquito, entiendo mas”, to which he grinned and said “Me too!”. I’m not sure if he was making a joke about his English or Spanish speaking skills, but the entire lecture was to be delivered en Español. I’ve made a point of working on my Spanish this year (which has atrophied embarrassingly upon moving from California to Oregon), my response as I walked in was the first time I’ve spoken any of it aloud to a native speaker in years. I struggled to follow at some points, but afterwards I was able to compare notes with a fluent colleague and I found I had gotten the general gist of things. I highly recommend researching the subject, it is truly incredible what our forensic colleagues are up against at times in Mexico, and I admire their tenacity in trying to right some truly terrible wrongs.

The other non-forensic art lecture that I thoroughly enjoyed came near the end of the week, featuring Bella, the cadaver dog. Bella and her handler, Rus Ruslander gave a demonstration and provided a vital bit of education in the capabilities of cadaver sniffing dogs; but more than that I felt like they provided a real morale boost after days of working hard to absorb as much as possible. I will just say that Bella is a very good dog, and is very good at her job. Dogs with jobs! What’s not to love? I am now the proud owner of a Bella trading card- feel free to be a little jelly about that.

This year I only attended one workshop, among the various lectures I took in. Of the other 2 workshops available, one I had taken last year and was so popular I couldn’t justify putting someone on a waitlist just to take it again myself, and the other I was leading (more on that later). Lucky for me, the workshop I was able to attend was led by none other than Karen T. Taylor, who literally wrote the book on Forensic Art and who I enjoy tremendously as a teacher and all around good-hearted lady.

Karen led a mini-sculpture workshop (mini meaning one day, as compared to her week-long classes in San Marcos), focused on identifying and depicting the muscles of the face that aid in expression. If you’ve never taken a class with her, they are a thing of beauty for those who appreciate order and preparation. For this class there was a fleet of 3/4 mounted skulls, baggies full of tools and wooden eyeballs, and a full color printed set of handouts with answers to any question a person might have about sculpting the muscles of the face. A mini workshop did not mean mini-effort, if you’re ever wondering if attending an IAI conference is ‘worth it’, there’s really no other place to get a taste of so many high quality trainings in one week as this.

Achieving Realistic Expectations

Most of my summer has been dedicated to preparation for this workshop- right up to the night before, which I spent on the living room floor of our little vacay bungalow, slipping my business cards into supply baggies and taping newsprint onto drawing boards. When I woke up at 5 am the morning of, I realized getting another hour of sleep in was going to be a futile effort, so I sat right back down on the floor in front of the coffee table and created some extra visual examples of the proportion finding technique I would be teaching in 5 more hours. After some breakfasting and fussing over clothing options, my bungalow-mate helped me shlep 21 students worth of stuff over to the Grand Hyatt. The morning was a bit of a blur, but it felt something like Christmas morning. Friends and colleagues poked their heads in as I was getting set up, and I just felt… happy. I am so grateful to my helpers along the way, from editing the course proposal, lugging all my stuff (and delivering a ‘bucket’ of coffee), sitting and modeling, modeling for the model so she could see the demo too… I love teaching. There is something very satisfying in seeing the light bulb go off for someone else, because you explained a concept in a way that clicked for them– that’s part of it, but the really amazing thing is all of the people that come together to make a class happen. And all of that is just the lead up to the class- once all the students show up, it’s a whole new animal.

My biggest worry going into the course was that the techniques might not translate- I hoped that what I was saying would make sense, and be applicable to improving anatomical accuracy and professional marksmanship. My students really went above and beyond my expectations in many ways, I was so relieved to see that what I had to say seemed to make sense to them, and I was able to see marked improvement even within the 5 hours of class with some of the students in particular. I could see quite a leap in accuracy from the warm-ups to the final pieces, and I was satisfied that everyone really seemed to be giving it their best effort.

I left my workshop feeling so proud of everyone who took part. My students really represented the whole gamut- from individuals who had never drawn before, to seasoned professionals. Taking an ‘art’ class can be intimidating, and it takes guts to walk into a 5 hour course for your first try. It also takes a certain dropping of the ego at the door to come in as a professional and give something different from your own technique a try. There was so much to admire among my students, I feel very fortunate to have had the cohort that I did. What really impressed me was the dedication and concentration I observed- I don’t think I’ve ever led a class that was silent during work time until now. Granted, mostly I’ve taught K-12 students, but I was impressed nonetheless.

To keep things in balance, as all things must be, my very favorite picture from the class will never be posted online, but I’m considering printing it for my fridge. In the photo, I’m gesticulating wildly, as I do, and there is a small circle of students sitting on the floor (let me just take a moment with that- these incredible adults SAT ON THE FLOOR like grade schoolers to see what I was doing in my demo, and I love them for that), and a couple rows back, another student is staring off into the middle distance with their mouth slightly agape. Whatever I was saying held no interest for that person. I have absolutely been that person in one class or another (Algebra 1A & 1B for sure), it’s not a personal failing. It’s good to remember that not every teacher is right for every student, and try as you might, you can’t please everyone, so just do your best for those people on the floor. The people who get you will listen, and may the rest find their right teacher too.

Rough Riders

Like last year, the conference wrapped with a banquet and installation of the new IAI President and board. I love banquets, galas, parties- any reason to dress up and clap. Unlike last year, I did not stay for dancing, but made a sneaky escape to a rumored-to-be-haunted bar at the Menger Hotel, which was around the corner from the banquet venue. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one to turn down a place that might be haunted, but definitely did host Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders- how cool is that? Somehow it seemed fitting that the forensic art crew found themselves gathered in a funky haunted bar. There were artists from across the country and around the world, who braved countless travel setbacks, negotiated the time off work and found their way to this gathering, upstairs in a steamy old fashioned bar to decompress and catch up after a week of cramming as much information as possible into their brains. They may not be a full blown cavalry regiment, but they’re some pretty tough and tenacious folks.

After the close of the conference, Kathryn and I made our way to Austin, where as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, we experienced some truly incredible hospitality from some very gracious hosts. I won’t tell tales on friend time, but suffice to say, there were mountains of shrimp, cappuccinos, many an inside joke, and just happy and invigorating times. Thank you especially to my hosts, the days following the conference were even more special than those during for many reasons.




A Soft Touch

Last night I was on the phone with my dad, explaining the thought process behind a recent project of mine. There is a certain magic in family connections, you see, and there is a conversational magic that I learned from my father over years of following his threads of storytelling. He has the unique ability to connect anything in a logical manner, through seemingly disconnected stories. A notable memory of this is the time he took me from Beatle boots, to Britney Spears, to World War 2 and back again over the span of a 4 hour lunch date when I was 14. I still couldn’t tell you how we got to any of it, but I can tell you that it made perfect sense. So here I am, looking back at our conversation last night and realizing that it is indeed all connected, my new easel, my Grandmommy, my upcoming class in San Antonio, and the bird’s eye view from my new office space.

Let’s start at the beginning, or is it the middle? Who’s to say. What got me on this thread was that I recently built myself an easel for drawing on a table top. I already own 4 or 5 table top easels, and a couple of drawing boards, and truly, they get the job done fine enough. Really, the easel I built is not for me, because of the aforementioned 4 or 5 perfectly satisfactory easels I have lounging around my studio apartment. I built this easel as a prototype for my students next month. As I prepare for my class (on how to draw realistic faces in graphite) I have come to the realization that art supplies are always more expensive than I think they will be, and providing 20 tabletop easels comes then with 3 options:

  • Option 1: Buy 20 of my favorite easel that I use on the regular, spending the equivalent of a couple months of a yoga membership at a hip studio in town.
  • Option 2: Buy 24 bulk easels that will undoubtedly scoot across everyone’s desks, collapse, and generally drive people insane (and provide 20 drawing boards for said easels, that will be too heavy for the easel to support, and will, again, drive everyone insane), for the price of a new (second-hand) fall wardrobe.
  • Option 3: Build my own damn easel that will not scoot, and does not require a separate drawing board, because it IS the drawing board, for the price of a really good trip to the grocery store and some elbow grease.
Option 3

Obviously, I chose Option 3, because I am crafty and stubborn, and I really want to spend my money on clothes and yoga, while also providing the best possible easel that will not drive my students insane. This brings us back to the phone call with my dad, where I was explaining why I had to build the easel myself (and why I need to build 19 more). I explained that invariably, in a graphite class, a few of my students will be pushing way too hard with their pencils, so I need the most stable easels possible, because as much as I would like to teach them to use a soft touch, 4 hours is not enough time to change a lifetime of artistic habit- so the cheap bulk easels are out, and the stable custom ones are in. Now this is the interesting part of the conversation- my dad paused and said something to the effect of, “Mom said that exact same sentence, we had this conversation about her students, and she said the same thing”.

When my dad refers to ‘Mom’, he means my Grandmommy, who was a fine artist and an art instructor in Los Angeles. She passed away when I was a little girl, 4 or 5, and yet somehow I have found my artistic career shaped by hers all the same. From what I remember, and what I have been told, I can absolutely see my grandmother sharing my frustration with people pressing way too hard with their pencils- I just know it is absolutely unnecessary and better effects are achieved when you lighten up, and here I am, knowing that she would say the exact same thing, probably in the exact same exasperated tone. As if this is just common knowledge all humans are born with, don’t you know? You just don’t have to push so hard.

You just don’t have to push so hard.

The above is now not just advice about pencil grip, but about life, see what I did there? I’m taking the thread and running somewhere else with it. In art as in life, I’ve found any situation I am truly struggling against would go much easier if I just lightened my grip a little bit. Over the past few months, for example, I had myself in a tizzy over a possible-maybe job opening across the country. I was so focused on that possibility that I was completely neglecting to see the opportunities in front of me in Portland. I had such a firm grip on what could be, that I was blinding myself to what is. Anything I was accomplishing, creating, or doing seemed to pale in comparison to what things might be like, if I had the other thing. Then I got hit by a car.

That line is mostly for laughs (my car was hit, with me in it), but really, it’s incredible how your perspective can shift when you’re forced to look at things differently. In early May I was suddenly ejected from my usual routine by physical limitations that took me by surprise. Very soon after the accident I made the decision to loosen my grip on the other thing and focus on my life in Portland, I wanted to see what I could do about accomplishing my goals, here. It doesn’t hurt that the sun is finally out. Portland is a truly glorious place in the summertime. The thing was, when I took a good look around, all of the things I was dreaming of having somewhere else were already here for me, if I would choose to see them. I can do the things I want to do with my life here, too. Once I stopped banging my head against the wall, I realized there was an open door right next to me, basically.

Loosening up also meant that I needed to drop my usual stoical schtick and accept some help for once. My dad and I have talked about this, it seems to be a trait we Andersons have in common, he blames our Norwegian ancestry. Whatever the reason is, I’m typically loathe to let anyone do anything for me. I despise not feeling self sufficient- which is not helpful to me when I just can’t be (because I’m human like everybody else, and sometimes I get hurt and just can’t do the things I want or need to). Over the last month I let someone else do my dishes and laundry. I let someone else carry my camera and lights. I ordered cat litter via delivery instead of lugging it 10 blocks from the store, which is more expensive, but I have to say, absolutely satisfying. I also took some odd jobs that I wouldn’t normally do, because they were all I could do.

One of those odd jobs brings me around to that bird’s eye view I mentioned in the beginning of this post. In an odd quirk of fate, besides in my own home, more of my artwork by quantity lives in a couple of coworking offices in Portland than anywhere else. They currently have 5 large abstract pieces of mine that would be completely unrecognizable to anyone who knows my portraiture style. The owner of the space, and so of the paintings, is a friend of mine. Recently he asked me to do another painting for the space, on site, so I packed up one of my many tabletop easels, a drop cloth and some paints in my backpack and walked downtown to make something ‘quirky and fun’.

While I was painting, I was also admiring the view. The office sits on the 11th floor of a building that looks out at Burnside on the westside of Portland (including Powell’s, the famous city-block sized bookstore). I found myself staring out the window and thinking about how much I like working in downtown and how I hoped I could do that more, as this was my second gig this spring to put me in a high rise with a choice view. Usually I work from a cafe, or at my dining room table, with a view of 2 backyards that don’t ever seem to be occupied.

I created a painting inspired by that morning’s surprise downpour, which I got caught in on my walk to the cafe and was soaked from my knees down (I am uncool and carry an umbrella). Other hapless walkers and I watched as 23rd Avenue become a swift moving little river, and I appreciated how whimsical the first day of summer in the Pacific Northwest can be. I didn’t have a plan when I sat down to paint, and at the end I had not only created one of my most favorite recent paintings, but I somehow also made an agreement to become a member of the coworking space. It felt like making a wish and having it immediately granted, and it was easy. No pushing involved.

I can see Powell’s from the fire escape, it’s like Where’s Waldo but actually fun.

This morning I got up, grabbed a quick cup of coffee at my favorite cafe, and then rode the streetcar downtown to my new office to write. Once I got in and set myself up (and locked myself out once), I realized I had no idea what I wanted to say, so I decided to update my portraiture portfolio. For over a year I’ve neglected to add my graphite portraits- which are what I am basing my class on next month, so I realized I should probably let people know, I do that too. While I was updating the gallery, I dragged in the drawing I did of my Grandmommy, which became the step by step demo in my book, Achieving Realistic Faces. When I saw her smiling face, I thought about the conversation I had with my dad last night, and how she and I had shared the same frustration about pencil pressure, and I thought about how she shaped my art career. I thought about a story my dad has told me many times, that usually makes me tear up a little bit.


When my Grandmommy was ill at the end of her life, I remember my dad taking my brother and I to see her in what I assume was a hospice center. I remember it was surrounded by orange groves that were home to little white butterflies. While my brother and I were being led through the orange groves, my father was having the last conversations he ever would with his mother. He told me that he wanted to ask her what he should do with my early propensity for art, even as a very small child I was drawing and painting all the time. He wondered if I should be enrolled in some classes, should someone be chivvying me along this path of the artist. She shook her head and said simply, “Let her rip.” She didn’t seem to think I would have to be pushed very hard if I were going to be an artist, it would just happen, and she was right. She also had a question for him, “Will they remember me?”- my brother and I were still very small, and not totally aware of the gravity of the situation. When I say I tear up a little bit when I think of this, I mean I am absolutely sniffling through this paragraph. It makes me cry because I know we could never forget her. Not a day goes by in my life that I am not reminded somehow of her influence on my life, no matter the number of days we physically shared together. Her voice is with me in everything I do, right down to deciding to build a couple dozen easels because no matter what we do, people will insist on pushing too hard when all it takes to make an impression is a soft touch.



Crash Into Me

Crash Into Me

I’ve always been a sucker for shamelessly pulling song titles from my favorite artists for my work, and I feel like this Dave Matthews Band ditty is just right for where I’m going today.

In my last post, I talked about how sometimes something that you don’t want to happen can push you to do something really positive. Well, last week I was in a car accident in my zippy little car, which is out of commission at the moment, and that leads me to the negative action leading to a positive outcome.

In January I started working on a book– my first book! I always thought my first book would be a novel, or a children’s book, or a comic book, or… anything other than an art technique book. However, inspiration struck while I was working on a slide deck for the class I will be teaching this summer at the International Association for Identification’s 103rd Annual Conference. While I was building my slide deck I realized I had a whole lot more to say about my technique than a slideshow could possibly hold. So I started making a book. Like you do.

 The unglamorous side of being a freelance artist is that sometimes you juggle a few different gigs just to keep things afloat- one of my gigs was heavily dependent on my car, which will at the very least be out of commission for a few weeks.. so I thought, “What else can I do?”, and I thought of my book, just sitting and waiting to be shared…

About the Book

“Achieving Realistic Faces” was created specifically to aid Forensic Artists in speeding up and improving their skills in graphite, though it would benefit any artist who wants to improve their pencil work. In this book I lay out my shortcuts and faster ways to achieve high level results in graphite. I’ve combined my favorite and most used tips and tricks that I’ve amassed over a lifetime of being obsessed with portraiture and wanting to depict the face as I see it. My background in fine art and illustration comes together with tips for creating lifelike results, even if you don’t have a reference to work from. These techniques can be used in composite drawing, post-mortem depictions, or just drawing for the sake of depicting a face.

This book is broken up into exercises, cheat sheets for quick reference (on subjects like depicting different hair textures and wrinkles) and an in depth follow along portrait so you can see step by step how I achieve results like this (and how you can too):

I outline preferred supplies, set-up and some ways to re-think how you’re looking at the face. Why am I qualified to teach you anything? Probably because this is pretty much all I do. I’ve been creating portraits on a professional level for nearly a decade, with classical art training before that. More than my experience though, the thing that made me think “Maybe I should write all this down sometime…” is the fact that I keep getting asked to explain what the heck I’m doing when I work around other artists. I have a somewhat unorthodox approach to creating portraits, that I feel is more intuitive and I know lends itself to speeding things up. My approach is a blend of classical attitudes matched with illustrative speed– classical artists want to get it right, illustrators want to it on time. I want to teach you how to do both.

I’m offering “Achieving Realistic Faces” as an e-book initially, though I hope to do a print run eventually. You can buy the book here. If you know anyone you think would benefit from a new look at drawing in graphite, please pass this on!

Ready to jump in? Get your e-book for $15!

This link will take you to PayPal, once I receive your payment I will email your copy to the email address you provide!

I Can’t Help Myself

Chick-Lit Life

I was driving across town last night, listening to music, and pondering, as I do. An upbeat 80’s new-wave-ska ditty called ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ by Orange Juice bubbled up through the speakers, and suddenly 2+2 was 4 again. I began to understand what I had been tossing around in my noggin lately. I’m coming up fast on an important personal anniversary, that I’m a little bit hesitant to share, because one year just doesn’t feel like much time in some senses. I’m hesitant because I would like to be further on this road than I am, but perhaps I am far enough for now. On May 9th, 2017, I texted my dad and two of my closest friends “I’m going to be a forensic artist!”; and one year out, I recognize what a brassy and uninformed statement that was, but I stand by it. Sometimes my most boldly naive notions turn out to be the most interesting and rewarding journeys.

I’m reminded specifically of deciding at 17 that I didn’t need to do my senior year of high school, and that I would just jump straight into art school. One of my friends looked at me with his jaw dropped when I told him. “Your parents are going to let you test out?” – it had honestly never occurred to me that they would let or not let me, I just told them that’s what I wanted to do, and we all moved forward accordingly. This isn’t to say we didn’t discuss it, and what it might mean, but I don’t recall there ever being the attitude of anyone deciding but me.

That experience was not without its challenges or long lasting consequences, for better or worse. I do know that I wouldn’t be the artist or woman I am today without those hurdles, and the successes that came with taking a flying leap into the unknown at a young age. I learned that one cannot live on coffee and peanut butter alone, you can indeed fit 2 desks, a full size easel, 2 bookshelves, a futon and a mini-fridge into a 10×10 room, and that older men are best left to their own devices for a variety of reasons. That last lesson I seem prone to re-learning.

So back to May of 2017- I send my text, and immediately dive into more research and study than I ever remember doing in college. By June I was set on attending my first forensics conference, and by August I had immersed myself in a week of overstuffing my brain and watching my hair fluff ever larger in the high humidity of Atlanta in the summertime.

Between May and August a couple things happened that really changed the direction I was set to run in. I had been working a steady graphic design job in the marketing department of an e-commerce company just outside of Portland- a job I had been poking away at for nearly 3 years. By the time I had my lightbulb moment about Forensic Art, I had decided this would be a good place to stay parked while I did my research and slowly felt my way around to understand the lay of the land in my new chosen field. I’d also been seeing a guy that I really liked for a couple of months; we’d started cooking at each other’s apartments and reading the New Yorker out loud to each other, it was disgusting really. A side-note for those who have never seen my bookshelves- I have a shameful love for British Chick Lit books. They all have the same general plot line- girl seems to have it all, good job, cute guy, aspirations for settling into life comfortably- then everything drops out all of a sudden, the job is lost, the guy turns out to not be the dreamboat she thought, and nearly overnight everything has to change and the heroine goes on a massive adventure, learns what is truly important, and of course there is a happy ending. When I was 17 I always thought it would be lovely to have my life be like one of these books- but all the women seemed to be 30ish and established (think Meg Ryan in every movie she starred in during the 90’s). I suppose I could tell my 17 year old self to be careful what you wish for, but I’m too busy with my massive adventure where I learn what is truly important to me. Happy ending still TBD.

At first getting laid off and dumped in the same week seemed like a pretty lame move on behalf of the universe, but if I’ve learned anything from my tendency to leap before I look, it’s that the lame hands you get dealt are usually a hard shove in the direction you’re supposed to go. After a couple days of moping around town I hit the bookstore for some advice, asked my bestie to watch my cat, and drove from Portland to Los Angeles to see old friends and get my bearings. I spent a week visiting old haunts and connecting some dots on the last decade of my life that I hadn’t been able to see at the time. Somehow it passed my notice that I spent my early twenties puttering around Hollywood- and my mid-twenties working in a burgeoning Silicon Valley- and hell, that art show I thought was such a bust at age 20 was right off of Hollywood and Vine?! Going home helped me get perspective, and gave me a lot of respect for the ballsy 17 year old who kicked off this whole chain reaction. So I settled myself in at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax and started considering the options ahead of me- I could go back to a fairly safe career in design, working for some brand or another, on… whatever. OR. I could go full speed ahead towards this new exciting idea, something that really turned a light on inside me.

A month later, another friend was watching my cat, and I found myself at the 102nd Annual Educational Conference for the IAI in Atlanta, Georgia. About a thousand miles out of my comfort zone, I found myself meeting people whose names I’d read in books, and making friends with someone whose art career had paralleled mine in some funny ways- we’d both accepted offers from the art school the other had wanted to attend on opposite ends of California. We both spent our time teaching basic art skills to small children, and were both hellbent on a path to make a way in Forensic Art. I’m overjoyed to say that my friend starts her new position as a forensic artist this upcoming Monday. I have Instagram to thank for introducing me to her, besides our stints in art school, up until this week we lived on separate continents entirely. It has been my good fortune to have made a friend who was so generous with her knowledge and time to have taken me under her wing immediately last summer in Atlanta and helped introduce me to the other artists. Without her help I might have just sat in a corner watching it all happen, with her help I found a friend and a mutual cheerleader in this journey.

Yesterday my rabbi shared a quote from Baal Shem Tov, “Let me fall if I must fall. The one I am becoming will catch me”. A year later,  I am not quite a forensic artist. I am not quite not a forensic artist. No one is paying me to do it yet, but I can do it. I have been on a massive adventure, that seems set to continue. The falling didn’t start with getting laid off or dumped, the fall probably began when I started getting comfortable with something less than I had always thought my world would be like. I began to catch myself around the time I sent that impulsive text- and to jump from Baal Shem Tov to Buzz Lightyear, that is when I stopped merely falling and began falling – with style! For the challenges and hurdles of upending one’s life in the span of a year, I wouldn’t change a day of it. Change can be painful, and challenging, but it can also be beautiful and absolutely freeing.

I Know What I Know

Paul Simon has a great song called, “I Know What I Know”, and over the last year, I’ve been getting comfortable owning the things that I know. I’ve also had my eyes opened to the wealth of topics that I have so much more to learn about and am not qualified to open my mouth about. I’ve spent the last 10 years drawing and painting face after face after face (10 years, my whole life, I mean, who’s to say when you start counting?). For most of that time, I had no idea why I was doing this- I just can’t help myself when I see an interesting face. I want to draw it or paint it until I understand it. Lucky for me, the world is full of interesting faces.

This summer, I will be teaching a workshop at the 103rd Annual Educational Conference for the IAI. My workshop will not be about forensics but it is aimed at teaching professionals in the field of Forensic Art some new techniques to up their game in realism, focusing on some shortcuts I’ve been employing for a long time to find correct anatomy, and using graphite to create the textures that make a realistic representation of a face. How to move a pencil and how to deconstruct a face (in the least creepy way possible), these are things I know.

As for the things that I don’t know.. I’ll be sitting with my notebook in hand for another week of overstuffing my brain.

The Scariest Thing About The Body Farm

The Scariest Thing About The Body Farm

The downside to writing while jet lagged with an overstuffed brain right after class was that I missed a lot of what I meant to write about- and I hadn’t had time to get asked the same question by nearly all of my friends. I’m afraid that question had a less exciting answer than they were hoping for- and it isn’t without a little embarrassment on my part. What was the scariest thing I saw on the body farm? It happened on the very first day of class. There was a spider the size of a grapefruit in the bathroom, and I shrieked like a little girl. And everyone heard it. That’s all. Ok, so it was the size of a grape, but seriously, any fruit sized spider is just too big. I assure you, I will scream again, when the time comes.

There had been some concern for me, being the least experienced person in the room when it comes to death and the horrible things people can do to one another. Screaming about spiders in the bathroom did not bolster my case. Over the course of my studies in Forensic Art, my friends have also questioned (in a loving way), whether or not I was cut out for this, knowing about my inability to deal with suspenseful movies or haunted hay rides. The thing is, there’s a big difference between reality and fiction, movies that are meant to make you jump don’t have the same effect as seeing the aftermath of true horror in someone’s life. The difference for me is the necessity and capacity for empathy when observing ‘the real thing’. The victim of a homicide isn’t scary, they’re simply a person who may have met an especially gruesome end. I found when sitting with morgue or crime scene photos, I wasn’t repelled by the gore, I was drawn closer with a desire to understand and do the best I could to theoretically help them. I say theoretically because as this was a classroom setting, these people have fortunately already had their cases solved by people much more experienced than me.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

This isn’t to say I was never unnerved by this profession’s proximity to death and the myriad ways it displays itself- but I got past that stage much faster than I thought I would. To explain that process, I have to share a story that so far has only made it to my closest friends. I retold it recently on returning from Texas when a friend asked me if I had been having nightmares about anything I saw in class, or if there were images I couldn’t get out of my head. I was surprised to realize, that while I have a generally vivid sense of recall, none of it had been particularly upsetting. Last summer however, was a different story. So, without further ado- let me introduce you to the body who got me past my fears; he had been found in the Arizona desert, and I had never seen anything like him before.

Paying Attention to Detail

I wrote about my first facial reconstruction a few posts back, and I was seriously frustrated that I had gotten the nose so wrong. Naturally, that was one of the problems I was most eager to solve during the facial reconstruction portion of the class. Turns out the solution was fairly simple, and now shame on me if I ever forget. I had been measuring the projection of the nose from the wrong spot.

Such a seemingly small detail can throw off an entire likeness, so the importance of accuracy and hands on training was driven home for me once again. Sometimes I feel like the majority of my artistic career has been an exercise in learning to be more patient with my work and to pay closer attention to the details- and when I say details, I don’t mean each and every eyelash on a portrait, or rendering every pore. Something Karen mentioned a lot in class was the difference between ‘gestalt and minutia’- anyone can get lost in minutia, but seeing how the whole works together is a different skill, and one that I think I have struggled with from time to time. It’s important to back up and see the bigger picture, rather than honing in on little pieces so closely that you don’t see that they aren’t fitting together.

Sometimes Things Are Funny, Thats OK Too.

There may come a time when you have to try on a crock pot like a hat.

I realize that most of my writing about my experience can be read as self serious finger wagging, I’ve even been accused (by my own mother) of having no sense of humor at times. Well, I’m just that way sometimes. I can get very serious about the things I find important. However, I also have a propensity for finding humor in some bleak things- something I am finding is common enough in this field. It’s not that death or the work we do is funny… but stories about how forensic anthropologists find the right crock pot to de-flesh a specimen, well, they’re kind of funny. Some of the things vultures do… kind of funny. Awful. But funny. It’s totally normal to cope with uncomfortable subjects with humor, the key is knowing where the line is. Joking about victims of violent crime is never OK, but being able to laugh at the oddities of nature and scientific study.. I think that can be alright.

Also, as a follow up from the last post, the Canadians from class are still failing pretty hard at proving they aren’t nice- yesterday they mounted a marketing campaign to fill a very talented teacher and fellow student’s next course, of their own volition. Those jerks.

Meanwhile in Texas…

Visiting F.A.C.T.S.

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.


The best little carpool in Texas, where everyone was dressed for the weather but me.
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:

Why Phil’s niece has nothing to worry about.
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.

These are just some of my favorites so far- you can keep up to date with us on Instagram or at!

From The Inside Out

3 Years of State of Grace

The new year is an apt time for reflection for most folks- this year was a double whammy for me. Not only did I walk into 2018 with everyone else, but just after New Year’s I walked into my third decade of life. As 30 approached, and since it set in, I’ve been doing some thinking about where I’ve been, and where I want to go. I am grateful to say at this point in my life, both sides of the coin are much clearer to me (as clear as they can ever be for a person at least).

3 years of writing my blog in this format has seen my work through some pretty big changes. When I started creating ‘State of Grace’, I just wanted an excuse to design some magazine covers, write a little bit and maybe make some cartoons. I didn’t have much of a direction for my art, and I was trying some things out. Over the last year and a half my work has made a hard pivot from semi-aimless doodling to goal oriented study and figurative practice. I started this blog as an outlet while working in a field it turns out I’m pretty ill-suited for, and over time I began to find a way to bring more meaning to my work. As that transformation happened, my purpose here changed from just finding a way to make myself laugh to creating something a little more personal and more representative. I still like to make people laugh, and I hope I never stop trying, but I’m happy that it isn’t a last resort against the monotony of coding email sales (and more power to those who actually enjoy that work).

From The Inside Out

As I mentioned in my last post, my family gave me an incredible gift last month- a skull that I could practice forensic reconstruction with. I spent the last few weeks creating both 2D and 3D reconstructions of the face, using Karen Taylor’s “Forensic Art & Illustration” as my guide. Only when I had completed both reconstructions was I allowed to see photos of the individual in life to compare my work to. Out of respect to the individual and other students who will attempt this work, I am not able to share the photos publicly. I will however share what the process was like and some opinions about my first attempt.

2D Reconstruction

The first time you try any new skill is never going to be perfect (however much I wanted it to be), and having seen photos of this individual in life now after creating these reconstructions, I can see where I led myself astray. A lesson I have been learning and relearning since art school is that you have to be able to let go of a piece that isn’t working- no matter how much time you have already sunk into it, sometimes you just need to start over. I hit that point on my frontal view about 3/4 of the way through the process. This was my first time using acetate as a drawing surface, and I gummed it up with too much erasure, leading to the appearance of severe facial acne- not what I wanted to do! After some hemming and hawing with myself and some attempts to fix it with further erasing (you can guess how well that went), I realized I had to let it go and start over.

Compared to the photos, the feature that bore the most striking difference was the nose- I overestimated the downturn of the nasal spine, and essentially left a gap of information where the nasal aperture is located, leading to the appearance of a very wide bridged nose. Overall the face shape, chin and mouth were more or less accurate (I can follow directions- but my best guess needs some technical help).

Completed Reconstruction Side by Side with Overlay
Completed Reconstruction Side by Side with Overlay

3D Reconstruction

I was more apprehensive about starting the 3D reconstruction, but in the end I felt more comfortable in this process than with the 2D. The combination of sight and touch makes for a very different creation process, and seeing the face form was much more visceral this way. I began the 3D reconstruction on New Year’s Eve- I had been swapping superstitions with friends and really enjoyed the thought of doing something you’d like to do more of in the coming year to ring in the new year. I also spent a respectable amount of time chasing my baby nephew around my brother’s house- so either way I think I’m set for happiness in 2018.

The process for this sculpture unfortunately began with some not-to-be-recommended MacGyvering on the armature. There was a page in the textbook that told me what I should do (and what I will do in the future), what I did do was build an armature out of things I had lying around my studio. Specifically, a coffee mug and a bundle of #2 pencils. Let me repeat, this was not a good idea at all. In the end, it couldn’t support the weight of clay on the face (you can see my early attempts at counterweighting with hair in the process pictures), in the end I had to prop her chin up on another package of clay, or it would begin to droop. Not ideal.

Reflecting on the final result versus the photos- the sculpture was more accurate in most ways than the 2D (the size of the lips for example). I made a point of not referencing the 2D because I wanted to see how my results may differ in 3D. The sculpture had more accurate features (except for the downturn of the nose, but the bridge was now more correct). The face shape was generally accurate as well, although the 2D better represented the actual fullness of the individuals cheeks. After talking to a friend who has gone through this process far more times than I have, I learned that thinned out cheeks are a common early mistake. This is why practice is so important!

Completed Reconstruction

Next month I will have the opportunity to take a class on 2D facial reconstruction and post mortem drawing. While I’m glad to have had the chance to practice on my own before I go into a classroom environment, I’m looking forward to having much more experience and guidance in the room with me.

Teenage Dream

Later this month, these 2 portraits will be showing at Treat Gallery in New York City. I answered a call for submissions a few months ago, not expecting to hear anything, and I was pleased to find out just after my birthday that my work had been accepted, along with 9 other artists. The theme of the show is “Teenage Dream”- they wanted works completed with at least a 10 year gap in between. I couldn’t have planned these two portraits better for that purpose if I tried (nearly complimentary colors- mirrored expressions!). When I answered the call for the show, I began to reflect on the circumstances surrounding the creation of both works and found uncanny similarities between my life at 19, and my life at 29.

In 2007 I was living truly on my own for the first time, no roommates, no partner to share space with- in 2017 I was adjusting to living on my own again. Living alone mostly means I get to listen to my music as loud as I want, I can paint at all hours, and I get to leave my socks on the floor. It’s not a bad deal for me, really. I recall the creation of the first portrait so clearly- I had just quit working for Starbucks (and kept my apron, this painting will forever narc me out for that- but that’s still the apron I use when I paint today, so at least I’m getting my use out of it), I was listening to a lot of Interpol, and I had about a 3 week interlude where I flirted with smoking clove cigarettes. Mostly I was anxious, college was -a lot- and being an adult was hard, my only outlets at the time were painting and driving my ancient Buick all over creation in the middle of the night. While I haven’t touched a clove in over a decade, I still find I use my art to process and chill out when life gets tough. Early 2017 was a hard adjustment, a lot of things in my life were up in the air, being an adult was still hard, I was still listening to a lot of Interpol. The biggest difference, looking back on both of these pieces however, is that I no longer feel like I don’t know where I’m going. I may not know how I will get there- but that’s all just details.