Some art students hone their craft using life models or pieces of fruit, but at one New York school they’re using the skulls of eight men who died trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
The skulls, found in Arizona and presumed to be the remains of undocumented migrants, date back to 2000, and have never been formally identified.
A forensic art class now offers the opportunity to reconstruct the faces of the faceless, and hopefully bring closure to their families.
The unique class is taught by Joe Mullins, a forensic artist from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia.
“What I do is combine art and science to help identify the deceased, find the missing and help catch the bad guys … with the power of art,” he says.
He began this kind of work 18 years ago, working with law enforcement to put together missing persons flyers.
Mr Mullins believes there are “probably around 20,000 skulls” in the US alone that are in need of identification.
“I’m on a mission to clear the shelves in medical examiners’ offices across the globe if I can,” he says.
And he believes that “we have the technology, the resources and the talent” in sculpting students and artists to do just that — and provide answers to “those families that have been frozen in uncertainty”.
Putting a puzzle together
Mr Mullins believes a skull can tell his students at the New York Academy of Art everything about a face.
Alongside the skulls, which are actually 3D prints of the originals, the students are provided with basic details about their subjects — including age range, distinguishing characteristics and any hair or clothing found with the remains.
They use oil-based clay and sculpt it onto the surface of the 3D-printed skulls. The eyes of the sculptures are white marbles.
A skull and basic physical descriptions doesn’t sound like much to go off, but Mr Mullins says there’s a lot of information you can get just from a human cranium.
“A skull tells you everything about the face — the projection of the nose, whether you have attached or detached earlobes, placement of your eyebrows, your hairline, the thickness of your lips,” he says.
There’s no one feature that’s the most important to nail — instead it’s about getting the proportions, locations and combinations of features right.
“It’s like putting together a puzzle and using the skull as a landmark to put the right pieces in the right spot,” Mr Mullins says.
The stakes are high. Misplaced ears could lead to a family failing to recognise their lost loved one.
Follow all the clues
The forensic art course is what attracted Antonia Barolini to the New York Academy of Art.
She says Mr Mullins’ class is completely unlike her other classes, which are all about artistic license and self-expression.
At first, she says it “felt like an anatomical exercise”, but after she developed the features and built the face from the skull, it began to dawn on her that “this is an unidentified person”.
“And then it really became something else … it’s definitely very powerful,” she says.
Forensic artists have long worked to help identify the lost, but recent developments in US politics that have seen President Donald Trump continue his call for a border wall with Mexico, make the work more urgent and timely than ever.
“Trump’s whole immigration thing dehumanises these people,” Ms Barolini says.
“I want to be able to give them their identity. These are people and no matter where they’re from, they have to be treated like people.”
On completion the reconstructed faces are photographed and submitted to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in the US.
Ultimately Mr Mullins hopes to get them back to the medical examiner in Arizona.
But for now, they’re being exhibited at the New York Academy of Art, “like a portrait gallery, but a portrait gallery for a purpose”.