Arts Illustrated

September 12, 2020

Sculpting Pasts

Accuracy becomes an art when reconstructing a face from memory or its very basic levels. It is also where forensic reconstruction takes on a new avatar

Godhashri Srinivasan

A few years ago, sculptor Pamela Mummy asked 3 blind people to describe the faces of their loved ones. The resulting sculptures ended up giving form to their mind’s eye, yes, but it also layered them with something indescribable. In another room, at another time, after 2 days of sculpting, artist and visual effects expert Anita Clipston and forensic imaging specialist Joe Mullins caught their first glimpse of a face staring back at them. Across the room, students watched as Plaster of Paris and scientific measurements blossomed into the living, almost sentient faces of people long-dead. In their hands, 3D printed skulls become faces, people, recognisable, reclaimed. The face became an identity, and sculpting became an act of finding a lost person – revelatory both to the living and the dead.

Tasked with finding the owners of 15 skulls found in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, dating anywhere from 1977 to 2019, Clipston, Mullins and 14 other students reconstructed faces based on skull measurements and skin-thickness markers. Mounted on their work tables, 3D replicas of original skulls were layered with pins denoting the thickness of the skin at each part. Sculpting clay was layered over the skull, slowly giving it muscles. These muscles became the forehead, the cheeks, the brow ridge, and a nose, and finally, the picture of a person who was once alive. ‘Now that more features are coming into the face, it’s starting to do this funny play of it turning from a job… now it’s somebody starting to ask me a question – he almost has an expression on his face, as though he’s asking if I can help him’, noted Kelly Robert, a student.

Accuracy becomes an art when you reconstruct someone’s face from their skull or memory. This accuracy becomes cathartic when the sculpture sparks recognition. When a reconstructed sculpture of a man who disappeared months ago was featured in an article in New York Times, the man’s aunt wrote back to the sculptor saying, ‘… in identifying and reclaiming him, our family has been able to come back together in a way we have not been able to since his disappearance’.

In forensic reconstruction, sculpture takes on a strange avatar. Crooked noses and twisted ears – traditionally seen as blights and faults in sculpting – become holy markers of recognition. Despite the lack of artistic license, the sculptor takes a forgotten identity and rediscovers it. The act presents a moment of such profound connection and purpose to one’s work that forensic reconstruction becomes an art by itself.


For many years now, John Gurche, a paleo-artist, has been reconstructing faces of our extinct ancestors. Some of the species are primitive, but show early human-like features, like the presence of a nasal spine. Through comparative anatomy of great apes and orangutans, he forms this face – the accumulation of millennia of evolution, the features that slowly gave way to those of you and me. Gurche’s sculptures answer the question of what makes us the way we are today, a question of scientific intent and artistic answer. Here, a sculpture became the atlas of man, the map of his evolution, and the miracle of his survival.

The sculptures made by forensic artists are tied more to identity than they are to aesthetics – a deviation from mainstream sculpting. These sculptures, however, unearth the nameless back into life, and stitch back the maw left by their disappearance, and as Clipston said, it is a ‘healing thing’.


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