Death Becomes Her
By Jeff Berg
Got dimples? Think they are cute? Sorry to tell you, but in the world of forensic sculpture, even the most adorable dimples are defined as just a break in the muscle.
That interesting little tidbit comes from Las Cruces artist Tomi LaPierre, who recently completed a course in the art of forensic sculpture in Scottsdale, Ariz., with noted forensic sculptor, Betty Pat Gatliff.
Sculpting is a fairly recent addition to LaPierre's talents, as she only started doing it about nine years ago. LaPierre, a long-time resident of Las Cruces, had never done any work with clay until a relative moved to Las Cruces.
"My sister-in-law had some kilns, and she gave me some clay," she says. "And I just became enchanted with it after she fired a few pieces for me."
LaPierre later took some classes in Pennsylvania and Arizona, and along the way discovered that she felt that the human face is the most interesting part of the body.
This led to the class she took in Scottsdale. The instructor, Betty Pat Gatliff, is considered one of the experts in the field of forensic sculpture. A retired medical illustrator, Gatliff now does a lot of her work as a teacher of forensic sculpture. Her studio in Norman, Okla., is where she normally practices "SKULLpture," her method of teaching forensic sculpting.
"There were 18 of us in the class," LaPierre says. "There were police sketch artists, anthropologists, some television and film animators, and a woman from the 'Body Farm' in Tennessee."
For those who don't keep up on the world of cadavers, the Body Farm is actually the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Facility. There is a most interesting chapter about it in the informative and darkly humored book, Stiff, by Mary Roach.
"Coroners will send Betty Pat a skull after it has been cleaned, and after an anthropologist does research to try to tell the age, gender, race, and general construction of the cranium," LaPierre says. Gatliff then attempts to re-create what the deceased looked like in life.
There are two types of reconstruction that are usually practiced: American, where tissue depth is used, and Russian, which also marks the deceased's facial muscles.
In the class, they gave everyone a different skull, LaPierre explains. Anthropology gives you clue work, but there is no infrastructure. You have no idea how long a person's earlobe might have been, for example, and you really have no idea of how they looked at all.
And the next bit of sorry news is that our noses and ears never stop growing. Chances are that if you make it to age 99, you may look like a cross between Dumbo the elephant and Pinocchio.
LaPierre displays a series of photos on her computer that shows the progress of her work, and that of some of her fellow students. The pictures taken at the end of the class show that most of the reproduced head bones look remarkably similar.
"We all did things that weren't exactly right," she points out. For example, LaPierre notes that "there is a difference in skull structure in males and females, which is something that must be considered." Different races also have their own unique look.
The skulls in the photos display depth markers in order to fill them in properly. Each is fitted with glass eyes. It is important to try to keep the eyes a neutral color, since the slightest change can make all the difference to someone trying to identify a victim or deceased loved one.
LaPierre goes on, "It is the visual resemblance that allows someone to identify the skull. A person will have the image of how someone looked in their head." Hence, the sculpted skull must remind that person of that image.
During the class, LaPierre explains, "we cut tissue-depth markers and nothing was symmetrical. And where you placed the markers could also make a difference. We worked from charts for all ethnicities and physical features. Lip placement is often a matter of best guess, and eyebrows are very important. We had to decide if the person's earlobes were attached."
Her photos show the progress of the work on the skull. A few seem almost whimsical, as they show the model with several different—mostly ugly—wigs. "Sometimes a skull will have lots of hair, so with the wigs, you get a 'whole' impression, and hope that someone will recognize this person."
You learn how skin changes as we age, LaPierre says. Our eyes also become deeper.
Another tidbit for you to consider: Facial wrinkles run perpendicular to muscle structure. Think about that the next time you frown.
Tomi LaPierre lives in Las Cruces with her husband Robert and operates LaPierre Electronics Inc., with him. Robert is also active as a volunteer fireman. Their house is also home to five cats and two dogs.
Before she studied forensic sculpture, LaPierre used to do portraits on commission. She has since stopped doing portraits, and relates several humorous stories about fussy clients that we won't talk about now. She also volunteered with the Bureau of Land Management at Dripping Springs for many years, and once set up and operated an Alzheimer's Hotline, later working as a volunteer ombudsperson for an agency on aging for several years.
She also has a space at the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market, where she displays and sells some of her other work, which includes bronzes. She has also shown her non-forensic work in juried shows in Washington, DC.
LaPierre's sculpture uses themes that other area artists seldom touch on, and often depicts African Americans. "I am color blind," she says, and adds that people sometimes shy away from her work, since it is not the typical warm and fuzzy type of art that is readily appealing.
Some of her work also depict themes of age, but not the typical grandpa out fishing with a grandchild. These pieces are more serious and can subtly depict her view of a social issue. "People do not want to see anything old, and they won't talk about anything about growing old or anything upsetting," she says.
"Artists want feedback, they want interconnection with another person," she adds. So, it would seem that LaPierre is trying to help us change the way that we look at "non-typical" art.
To date, Tomi LaPierre has yet to put her new skills at forensic sculpture to work. She has contacted the New Mexico State Police to offer her services, but has not been utilized as yet. Recently, police did find the remains of a person who had been missing for many years. But the police were able to quickly and positively identify the person before needing to summon LaPierre.
The time will come when LaPierre will be able to do what she was trained to do.
And just in case it is a "rendition" of me, please note that my earlobes are attached.
Frequent contributor Jeff Berg also wrote this issue's
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