(Notes about my trip to the IAI conference in Atlanta)
Last week, as I was picking my way down the steep front steps of my AirBnB in Atlanta to get into my Lyft (if this sentence isn’t a complete time capsule for the gig economy, I don’t know what will be), I was stopped by a monarch butterfly. It landed on my shirt and I paused halfway down the steps- I’m not one to rush a visit with a butterfly. It lazily flapped its wings and poked about with its funny coiled antenna, and as soon as it had come, it was gone- off to another flower, or to land on another jet lagged soul. Later that night, after I had returned from a day of lectures and learning, I was sitting at the dining table talking to my host, maybe about the lost 9/11 flag, or maybe about her history as an anthropology major- I’m not sure, we were just idly chatting after a long day. I felt something land on my hand, and my immediate impulse was to shake it off (there had been an incident with a very large spider the night before), but before it was gone, I looked and saw that it was a little orange ladybug.
The next morning, I was bumped off of the waitlist into the workshop I had been most excited to attend, and in my giddiness I entered the classroom chattering, as I sometimes do, and told the professor about my visitors the day before. He smiled and cocked his head, and said, “You know, that’s what the Chinese would call ‘double happiness'”.
I’m not sure double happiness even covers how I feel about my time in Atlanta. Every day was a delightful mix of purpose, study and meeting more kind, interesting and accomplished folks than I could have imagined or anticipated.
102nd International Forensic Educational Conference
My journey to the 102nd Annual IAI conference started early this Spring, when I was reading “The Girl With The Crooked Nose”, a sort of thriller biography about Frank Bender, a titan in the field of facial reconstruction. The IAI was referenced, so I looked it up and saw that they had a conference coming up in August. I started browsing through the lecture titles, and was rolled by a class titled, “Let’s fingerprint that dead body!”- I took a screenshot and sent it to my dad, sure that he would also appreciate that funny bit of professional enthusiasm. I added that I’d like to attend, though it might be a pipe dream for this year- he responded in true dad fashion, “You are going!”. I wasn’t sure if this meant a) he believed in my ability to figure it out or b) that he was going to help me get there. It turned out to be a little of column a, a little of column b. Over the next few months we worked together to figure it out, and 2 Saturdays ago I found myself on a plane on my way to Atlanta for my first professional outing in a field I’ve dreamed of joining since I was a teenager.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t absolutely horrified for the 5 hour plane ride, and subsequent first 10 hours in Atlanta prior to the conference. Some thoughts included, “What have I done? Why am I here? What in the world do I tell people when they ask me what I do? Will anyone even talk to me?”- I found some answers to those questions in short order at the opening reception, where I met up with Paloma Galzi of Galzi Forensics Limited, who I had connected with through Instagram a few weeks earlier. Soon after arriving, I was profoundly relieved to find the community of artists to be extremely welcoming and friendly.
So the answers to my panicked arrival questions-
- What have I done? Taken a huge step towards the career of my dreams.
- Why am I here? To learn from people who have already navigated this path.
- What in the world do I tell people when they ask me what I do? Right now I’m learning as much as I can, but I hope to be working in the field soon.
- Will anyone even talk to me? Uh, yeah, a lot of people, so many that it’s kind of overwhelming in a wonderful kind of way.
The week was a blur of activity- workshops, lectures, the dreaded ‘networking’- the entire time I was constantly surprised at how supportive, warm, and genuine the other artists were, and how humble they are about the incredible work that they do.
Day 2 was mostly lectures, and therefore mostly doodling and note taking.
I had a run in with a butterfly (see above), and attended a workshop called ‘Court and the Forensic Artist’ taught by Paul Moody.
On Thursday I got to attend a workshop called ‘Sculpting The Human Skull’, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. We worked from anatomical casts and had our choice of 6 skulls, 3 male and 3 female in 3 different ethnicities. I chose to work on a female Asian skull, because I liked her smile. It’s been about 12 years since my last sculpture class, and I felt it at first, but after the first hour or so of struggle it started to come together for me again.
The class was very helpful in brushing up on specific anatomy and being able to take a deeper look at what makes every skull unique and different. It was a treat to have the guidance of Dr. Daniel Marion, who is in so many ways a master in this field. Towards the end of class we had a visit from Karen Taylor (I’m not starstruck or anything), who casually walked past my skull and informed me that I’d given it the mandible of an elderly person- it was a quick fix, and it definitely opened my eyes on the importance of the subtle details involved in creating a likeness. Being able to work alongside artists who are leaders in the field compared to my nearly utter lack of experience was very humbling.
By the end of class I was so attached to my skull that I couldn’t consider not taking it home- which presented some interesting challenges. I was one of the only artists not staying in the hotel where the conference was held, so it meant that I got to carry her around with me all evening until I went back to my AirBnb, and so thusly, I named her Ruth- wither I goest, she goest! I have to say, the residents and Lyft drivers of Atlanta are pretty unflappable, and we only mildly startled one waiter.
The last day of the conference was also the second most exciting workshop for me- it was called ‘The Composite Sketch Tune-Up’, and consisted of a deep dive into pushing value scales in drawing (the lightest lights to darkest darks and everything in between). I had been so looking forward to this session that I brought my travel easel with me from home- because when I nerd out, I really nerd out. So naturally, in my excitement, the morning of the workshop I promptly left the easel behind at my airbnb… Luckily I made some friends last week and one of them was sweet enough to haul my forgetful self back to go get it- thanks!
The night ended with a banquet, and it really felt kind of like the end of summer camp for me. I enjoyed my week so much, and all of the wonderful people I met, that I really could have just kept doing that for a while more. Fortunately, I have other workshops to look forward to next year, and of course I’m hoping I’ll be back for year 103.