forensic facial reconstruction

In February of this year, my husband and I completed a Forensic Facial Reconstruction–Sculpture 40-hour workshop at F.A.C.T.S., aka the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State. For me, it was part fulfillment of a 15-year dream to study with Karen T. Taylor and part research for my book-in-progress. The last day of class was my 40th birthday, and I don’t know, but it felt like I had reconstructed myself. I had found something I thought lost forever, and I felt a new confidence that I was on the right path with my alchemical amalgamation of magic, forensics, and faith.

Forensic reconstruction on a skull blends forensic anthropology, cognitive science, and art. One cannot specialize in either-or and succeed at identification, and therein lies the terror and the beauty of it. It defies the modern worldview that divides science and art, although as Karen told us, most people will feel more comfortable on one side of the discipline or the other. Some people love cutting the tissue depth markers because the measurements are “precise” and “knowable.” Others feel more comfortable styling the hair or parting the lips a certain way.

I first stumbled on Forensic Facial Reconstruction 15 years ago while in-process on an essay about a missing woman, and it forever changed my worldview and process. I began to think of writing as a forensic art, and forensic science metaphors became prominent in my work. I think it appealed to me because it represented an intersection with the justice system for which I longed, but more on that in an essay later.

Here in Salt Lake City, I went through a crisis with forensics as a way to understand and process the world, and I turned to certain magical processes instead. My course at F.A.C.T.S. reminded me that I could have a magical forensics. I could be my own justice.

Before we began sculpting on our skull, we spent a few days studying facial anatomy, sculpting muscles onto a practice skull. Quoting another professional in the field, Karen said, “The mind cannot forget what the hands have learned.” She was right. Later on as I sculpted, I found myself thinking about the underlying muscles and how they would shape the face.

The sculpture process begins with intense study of the skull for characteristics that give clues to heritage and gender: size of jaw, teeth, shape of skull. The artist must consult with a forensic anthropologist for expert insights. Teeth are memoirs carved in bone, giving clues about class, access to care, diet, and age.

Once the features are determined, sculpting begins by applying tissue depth markers, which are derived from anthropological studies where needles were inserted and tissue depths measured. The goal is to find average tissue depths for different heritages, although of course, it’s very complicated in a world of mixed heritages.

Cast of a skull with tissue depth markers glued to the appropriate locations. The markers are numbered to correspond to their location.

After this, strips of clay are applied with the correct thickness.

We learned an approach derived from the skull anatomy to approximate the nose. I fretted so much over it. I thought it seemed impossible to get it right. It turned out OK for a first sculpture attempt.

Black and white image of my hand holding up a life-size image of the skull with the nose drawn onto it next to the sculpture for comparison. The sculpture is only partly complete and has two strips of clay across the teeth for the mouth to be created. The eyelids have not been blended with the rest of the face yet.

Close-up of sculpture showing nose and mouth. The sculpture's lips are open slightly to reveal teeth. There are hatch marks on the clay surface from using sandpaper to texturize it slightly.

Here I am fussing with the hair. Karen later sat down and showed me an easier way to fashion the hair. She also pointed out that I had created a straight part. While it looked fine, it’s those little details that can stop someone from recognizing a loved one. You don’t want to solidify a specific “look” because the loved one might fixate on it and think, “Nah, that couldn’t be my daughter, son, wife, husband …” You have to build ambiguity into the sculpture. We fussed with the part to make it a little messier — not super messy, but enough that it could go either way.

The author sculpting. She has brown hair pulled into a ponytail and is wearing a pink patchwork sundress. On her right shoulder, there is a black tattoo of the SLC temple doorknob. The sculpture sits in front of her on a table, balanced on a stand. She is reaching around the sculpture's ear to place a strand of hair there.

Photo taken from behind and above as Karen T. Taylor smooths some clay onto the sculpture face right below the eyes.

Here is Karen demonstrating to me how to fill out the eye and cheek areas to achieve a more youthful appearance (our girl was aged quite young, probably in her 20s).

You can also see here how the eyebrows look different. Karen was demonstrating some techniques for me. She did one side, and then I got back to work doing the other.

Black and white photo of the author seated behind her sculpture working on the hair.  She is wearing a sweater and glasses and has dakr her hair pulled into a ponytail.

We also studied Karen’s collection of real skulls, paying particular attention to the features that matter most for a successful reconstruction. At one point, Karen showed us slides of eyes and asked us to guess who the famous person was. We failed. Then, she showed us slides of famous people’s teeth, and we identified all of them.

I wanted to cry it made me so happy. Teeth, to me, are the ultimate identifier, but in a different, more personal way.

Close-up of teeth on a real skull. Some of them have metal caps. Some are decayed.

Mandible with interesting dental features.

Mandible with interesting dental features, including several missing teeth and some decay.

At the end, we got to see our girl’s (that we started calling her “our girl” has fascinated me — is it possessive? is it familial?) real face to see whether our sculpture could have made an identification. I cannot share her image here for privacy reasons (and well, I don’t have an image of her, anyway), but she was an actual murder victim, and her face has haunted me ever since.

She looked exactly like my mother when she was young. Same hair. Same shadows over her eyes, same way of holding her mouth. At first, I thought I was seeing things, until I glanced at my husband and saw that he was noticing it, too.

“Do you see it?” I asked him.

“I do,” he said.

“She’s a dead ringer for my mother.”

This whole time, I had thought, this face looks familiar. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I worried I was making the beginner mistake of sculpting my own features.

From an essay I wrote in graduate school, with a character based on Karen T. Taylor that cited her book:

When the forensic artist first learned to sculpt over a plaster cast of a skull rather than a real one, she constructed cheekbones like her own – high and deep – and ignored the shape of the imaginary victim’s face: a common mistake, to mold the clay into a face one knows best. The hands are wired for it, from years of itching the same nose, rubbing the same chin, brushing blush on the same cheeks. And maybe the artist even loves the victim a little, wants so badly for her to have a name that she gives her a face she can recognize.

“I believe your sculptures could have gotten an identification,” Karen said, and it meant everything.

Later, as we pulled out of the parking lot and began the drive through the Freeman Ranch, I thought about what I learned in the larger sense–a life lesson. Here is what came to me: sympathy for God. I now knew what it meant to put flesh back onto bones, how hard it was to know a face from just the skull. I saw what Ezekiel saw in the Valley of the Dry Bones. A strange thought for a person without a faith to think, but not really. After all, I have been taking resurrection into my own hands.

I came to the class to learn how to resurrect, and I wound up becoming mother to my own mother. On my 40th birthday no less. Since then, I occasionally break down into tears: on my birthday, I gave birth to my own mother. Sort of the ultimate resurrection. I have been absorbing its meaning over these past few months, but so far, the right words elude me. I will find them, though. The time will come to articulate the transformation that happened at F.A.C.T.S.

There were many other things I will not share here, but I will write about them soon.

View of “my girl” from above:

Sculpture from above showing the hair with a less rigid part. The hair has some loose bangs and the rest pulled back into a bun, with a messy part.

Best birthday present ever:

Certiciate of Completion of a 40-hour workshop in forensic facial reconstruction.

In my book, Karen T. Taylor signed:

Title page for Forensic Art and Illustration, which Karen T. Taylor signed: Feb 6, 2015 San Marcos Texas: Karrie, I'm so glad to know you ... and I feel that you are a special soul. May the 'good guys' always win! Fondly, Karen T. Taylor PS: Loved spending your 40th with you!

May the good guys always win.