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.


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 www.forensic-facts.com!