New York Art Students Mold Faces on Skulls of Deceased Unidentified Migrants

A new initiative at the New York Academy of Art helps students not just hone their skills, but also help others.

The Academy is collaborating with the coroner’s office in Pima County, Arizona, to identify nameless corpses that have gone unclaimed, and put names to eight migrants who died trying to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.

The hope is that the sculptures will help families claim the remains of their loved ones and bring them closure.

“The migrants, as they come across the border, they experience heat and usually they die of exposure,” said John Volk, the school’s director of continuing education.

“And people find skulls from their remains. And there’s no way to identify them without DNA analysis and without dental records. So what we do is we try to reconstruct them so that people might be able to see one of their loved ones or family members and identify them.”

While the New York medical examiner’s office has used police sketch artists for years to help with identifications, the partnership with the New York Academy of Art, now in its fourth year, is turning to art students to bring the sketches to life.

Six months ago Volk asked the New York medical examiner’s office to work with the Pima County medical examiner’s office so that his students could help in some way with the migrant issue.

Since it’s impractical for the art students to use actual human remains being studied at the medical examiner’s anthropology laboratory, the office uses a 3D printer to print skulls that his students can work from.

Students reconstruct the faces using 3D images of skulls and the few facts available about ethnicity, sex, age and the like. In modeling the plasteline, an oil based clay, they also draw on their knowledge of tissue depth and other anatomical details.

They are told not to be creative because the purpose is to identify people. Two of the cases have been identified through DNA analysis, Volk said.

Kristen Pedote, a student involved in the project, said it takes about five days to create the busts. She said the process is an “emotional roller coaster because you do want to separate yourself from it but you also want to motivate yourself to kind of power through it, just to see.”

The sculptures are on display at the New York Academy of Art’s windows through March 29, and photos of the faces have been posted online to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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