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.

 

 

 

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.