In a Scottsdale classroom, lost and wanted souls come to life under the guidance of one of the world’s leading forensic artists.
Two skulls sit on the shelf above the desk, their faces angled toward each other as if they’re whispering secrets. Aside from these grinning companions, however, Kirt Messick’s office isn’t especially macabre. His bulletin board is covered with photos of his wife and two young sons. A water feature gurgles and trickles, and Josh Groban sings softly from a speaker somewhere. It might almost be the office of, say, a family therapist.
“I had to give up my man card for this color,” admits Messick, gesturing at the mauve-lavender shade of the walls. “But it’s a calming color.”
His man card could surely be redeemed, however, by the work he does: helping to catch violent criminals. Although his calmingly-painted office is housed in the Phoenix Police Department, his crime-fighting tools are not a gun and a badge and handcuffs, but rather pencil and paper and computer software, and a comforting manner. He’s the department’s forensic artist.
As such, he’s one of less than a hundred professionals around the country who can claim the title as their full-time job. The “composite drawings” we see on TV news or in the papers are often done by police officers or civilian employees with a knack for drawing, or occasionally by freelancers brought in on a major case. The pictures they’re asked to draw are usually of suspects, but they may also do “age progressions” of people who have been missing (or in hiding) for a long time, or postmortem reconstructions from human remains.
On top of a filing cabinet sits a recent specimen of Messick’s work – a portrait, rendered with both technical skill and expressive flair, of a man with curly hair and a tiny soul patch under his lower lip. The pleasant expression on the guy’s face is evidently deceptive – this composite drawing was made a few days earlier, based on the descriptions of the subject’s victim.
“I’ve learned never to discount the witness,” Messick says. To demonstrate, he tells the story of a hate crime he once worked: A black man and a white woman were walking together across a store parking lot. A white man passing in a car hurled a racial epithet at them, then circled the parking lot and fatally shot the woman.
“The witness was, maybe, involved in some chemistry,” Messick says, euphemistically describing the man’s mental state. “His mind was like spaghetti. I have a strong faith, and I pray all the time on this job. I kept saying, ‘Lord, give him his mind back. Please just give him fifteen minutes.’”
Apparently his prayers were answered that day: On his computer screen, he calls up the picture of the sullen face he drew based on the man’s description, and the sullen face of the man who, he says, recently received a long prison sentence for the crime. The two faces are close to identical.
Late-night movie junkies may have snickered at the scene in 1964’s The Strangler in which the police artist, played by James B. Sikking of Hill Street Blues fame, sketches mad killer Victor Buono based on the description of a witness, and the result looks like it was traced from Buono’s headshot. But Messick’s work suggests the corny scene may not have been so preposterous; the likeness in his drawing is only a little less spot-on.
Along with any divine intervention Messick may have summoned, at least some of the credit for the likeness must go to his talent, and also to his training. Messick, whose many cases include the familiar “long hair and Gilligan hat” (his phrase) composite from the “Baseline Killer” case of 2005-2006, is a veteran of the courses in forensic art taught twice annually at Scottsdale Art School by Karen T. Taylor.
“She is awesome,” Messick says of Taylor, and he’s not alone in the opinion. Since the mid-1980s, more than 500 students have taken her classes at SAS alone, some of them traveling from as far away as France, Germany, Mexico, the UK, Kuwait and Barbados to do so.
This month, the Texas-based Taylor will pack her skulls and busts and come to Scottsdale once again to pass on her techniques for conjuring up the faces of the wanted and the lost.
“Faces have always fascinated me,” recalls Taylor. “I remember drawing them throughout my childhood. For as long as I can remember, I was never satisfied to just create a face... it had to be the correct face that really resembled the person.”
After graduating from art school in Texas and studying at the Chelsea School of Fine Art in London, where she also shaped gobs of paraffin into celebrity likenesses for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Taylor spent 18 years working as a forensic artist for the Texas Department of Public Safety. She eventually launched a lucrative career as a freelance instructor and media consultant, collaborating with Hollywood productions like America’s Most Wanted and CSI.
In the classroom, she imparts some of the theoretical genius that helped her rise to rock-star status in the forensic art world. The instruction often weds art technique with human psychology. “Composite sketches involve the retrieval of a facial memory from a traumatized person,” she explains. “This requires a sound understanding of the functional processes we use to perceive, recognize and encode faces into memory.”
Anatomy and physical development are also key competencies. “Age progression art work for missing children or fugitives must be done with knowledge of human growth patterns and aging effects on the face. Development of a facial reconstruction from a skull, either 2D or 3D, necessitates comprehension of the face from the inside out. All of these tasks are highly complex and experience-based.”
From left: Forensic art instructor Karen T. Taylor and students at Scottsdale Art School.; The Chicago Jane Doe skull, prior to Taylor's rendering of the victim.
Taylor then quotes anatomist Robert George: “‘Forensic art may be described as portrait art minus a tangible subject.’”
One of Taylor’s star pupils is Natalie Murry, who will be teaching Digital Composite Illustration at SAS in early May, overlapping Taylor’s scheduled workshop in Forensic Facial Reconstruction Sculpture. Although Murry had already done composite illustration as part of her police career, it’s Taylor she credits for taking her work to another level.
“I drew a lot as a child, but didn’t dream anyone could make a living from art,” Murry says. It was in the 1990s, when she was working as a police officer in Kent, Washington, that “one of my sergeants who knew I liked to draw sent me to a composite drawing class that our agency was hosting... A few months later, one of the detectives in my agency gave me a flier about a new forensic art book that was being published.”
The tome in question – it’s also on Messick’s office bookshelf – was Forensic Art and Illustration by Karen T. Taylor. “I read it cover to cover and was amazed at all the other aspects of forensic art that I hadn’t known about,” notes Murry. “I immediately paid my own way to SAS to take Karen’s 2D reconstruction class. I didn’t even bother trying to get my agency to send me. I took vacation time and went on my own.”
Through Forensic Art and Illustration, Murry says, “Karen really opened my eyes to all the myriad applications of forensic art. She also covered all the topics I hadn’t considered in great depth – the history of forensic art, learning the muscles of the face and neck, interviewing traumatized victims, court testimony, and professional ethics and conduct.”
Murry already had reason to believe she had aptitude for this work. “A few days after my first composite class, I got the chance to do a composite on an alleged rape [case]. I showed it to another officer, who immediately said it looked like a person he’d had contact with before. The description of his vehicle also matched that of the suspect, and we passed that info on to the detective in the case.”
The allegation of rape, according to Murry, turned out to be false. “The victim had had consensual sex with the suspect, but hadn’t wanted to admit that to her boyfriend.”
But this wasn’t the point, as far as the budding artist was concerned. “The suspect was indeed the person the other officer thought it might be. So I got a ‘hit’ on my first ever drawing – that was a huge boost for me.”
Taylor’s class gave Murry an even bigger boost.
From left: Mesa PD senior crime scene specialist Jeanne Cybulski puts the finishing touches on a facial reconstruction.; Forensic art instructor Natalie Murry began her career as a police sketch artist in suburban Seattle.
“She prepares for her classes more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Murry says, “and has incredible amounts of source material to use as examples of what she’s teaching. She brings posters and original drawings of her own cases that she puts on the walls to show successful cases and get students enthused about the work. She also has several examples of drawings and sculptures from TV shows that she’s consulted on, and is generous enough to share these with the students as well.”
Murry credits Taylor with teaching her quite literally to think outside the box. “In my first composite classes with other instructors,” she says, “I was taught to draw all faces with the same proportions. Given a 4-by-6-inch box, students were told at what locations to always place the eyes, nose, and mouth. I learned from Karen that not everyone fits into that box, and it’s our differences rather than our similarities that make us unique and recognizable.”
This isn’t nitpicking, according to Messick: “So many people get into this without a proper training in anatomy.” To illustrate, he points to a picture on his computer screen.
“Eyes are center in the head,” he says. “An amateur problem is, they want to make the eye higher and the nose longer than they are…” With the exception of some “Hollywood pretty people” as Messick puts it, “the tear duct will line up with the outside nostril.”
This sort of subtle precision, the object of Taylor’s classes, is what distinguishes an elite forensic artist from a run-of-the-mill precinct scribbler – and perhaps means the difference between a criminal-at-large and an apprehended suspect.
Along with Messick, the SAS class has graduated several Valley residents who work in forensics. “I’ve taken several of her classes,” says Jeanne Cybulski, a senior crime scene specialist with the Mesa Police Department. “I’ve taken her master composite class and her 2-D reconstruction class, and I just took her sculpting class… She’s a pioneer in her field. I think the thing I came away with was not having such a flat drawing, making it more rounded, more dimensional.”
Murder victim Marlaina Reed, aka "Chicago Jane Doe" (left), and the sketches and bust forensic artist Karen T. Taylor created using only the deceased woman's decomposed skull.
She also admires Taylor’s innovation in the 2-D reconstruction of skulls, which makes the process faster and easier: “She developed a way to take photos of the skull with tissue-depth markers on them. Then you can draw on an acetate layer over these photos.”
Taylor observes that the skills she teaches have applications in fields other than law enforcement. At her classes, she says, “There have been medical and scientific illustrators, cartoonists, dollmakers, special effects and makeup artists, museum preparators, cognitive psychologists and anthropologists. I always learn something from every new attendee, but it can also be a bit intimidating.” She confesses to being amused by “the dental types” among her sculpture students, however: “Almost every time, they end up working with the sculpted head upside down in their laps!”
Taylor cites various mentors of her own, notably Betty Pat. Gatliff, the “grande doyenne” of forensic sculpture famed for reconstructing the face of King Tutankhamun. Taylor, in turn, has begun the process of “passing the torch” to a student turned teaching colleague: Natalie Murry.
“Natalie is now teaching a great digital composite workshop that promises to carry this work into the future,” Taylor says. “This allows artists to help depict ‘bad guys’ and their victims with pencils, clay and a touch-sensitive stylus on a digital tablet.”
Messick admits he initially resisted adopting this sort of high-tech method. Partly, it was mistrust of the earlier technology. “For a while, there were programs that had a database of faces and you’d pick this and pick that,” Messick says. But this, he felt, took too much of the collaborative element out of the equation.
“That one-on-one with the victim or witness makes such a big difference,” he asserts. There’s also the simple matter of pride in his craft. “By using the hand-drawn, I don’t feel like I’m losing my ability to be an artist.”
Cybulski echoes his skepticism about these earlier virtual-art approaches. “In our unit, the way we did drawing was all computer-generated,” she says. “You could only put on the screen what features they had in the database. I think hand drawing is more accurate.”
But ultimately, Messick found the computer helps even his connection with the witness. “I do hand-drawn for about half of it, until the victim or witness tells me we’re getting really close, and then I scan it in. That way if we have to make small changes”– he demonstrates the ease with which the width of the subject’s eyes can be altered – “they don’t feel like they’re putting me out... When they see how easy it is to make changes, and that I love to draw, they really get into it.”
One must wonder if the poignant triumphs of the forensic art fields – sorting out the perplexities of a gruesome crime, for instance, or providing closure to a bereaved parent, sometimes after decades – is enough to counterbalance the wear on the souls of these artists in a way it might not for other law enforcement and justice system professionals. Does it ever feel toxic to constantly lavish one’s artistic gifts on such sinister subjects, and for such high stakes? Do these artists ever long for the purity and freedom of fine art?
Karen Taylor’s recent work hints this may be the case for her. “I have spent decades depicting the bad guys and their victims and I will forever be a crime victims’ advocate,” she says. “The work has at times been heartbreaking and very stressful. As a result, the immersion in this work has led me to an even greater appreciation for the good guys in our society.”
She has begun, after years of rendering the faces of “bad guys” and their victims, to sculpt bronze portraits of people she regards as “The Good Guys,” such as another mentor of hers, Alaska-based forensic artist George Taft.
Murry also features some fine art – impressive paintings of beetles and skulls and orangutans – on her website nataliemurry.com. But she dismisses the idea that her forensic work eats at her insides.
“I do not feel haunted or oppressed by the work,” she says firmly. “I do sometimes have to look at horrific images that I’d rather not see. My years of police work and perhaps my own nature allow me to put those feelings aside to do the work because I think of who is waiting to find their loved one. I think of the victim waiting for justice, and the suspect walking free. It sounds cliché, but being able to assist in tipping the scales of justice a little in favor of the victim is important to me, and the main reason I got into police work to begin with.”
As for Messick, he acknowledges that “The last few months, my heart has just been aching to get back to [fine art].” Still, he claims he finds providing solace and purpose to the victims of crimes uplifting.
“I’ve had 80-year-old women come in here saying, ‘Why did he rape me? I’m 80 years old. Is my husband still going to love me? Do I have a disease?’ They’re the heroes in my mind. Often they’ve been through so much trauma, and they come in on their own time, with no other motive but to keep it from happening to somebody else. It’s hard to have to go through it all again. But when they see that we’re getting close on the drawing, there’s a little bit of empowerment that starts to creep back in.”
Phoenix PD forensic artist Kirt Messick explains how he creates a facial composite from an eyewitness description, step-by-step.
1 “Make [the witness] totally comfortable. ‘We’re just going to get what you remember on paper. If you don’t remember, that’s OK.’”
2 “They describe the incident. ‘We’re going to pretend I’m blind, but I can hear perfectly, and you and I went to the movies. You’re going to be my Spielberg, and describe what happened so I can see it.’”
3 “Listen to them. I don’t interrupt them. It’s a cognitive interview. They may talk about their aunt’s curtains, or their cat. But they’re going to wander back. What you want is that free flow of info, because it can trigger recall.”
4 “The head shape is the most important thing. You make it simple, almost cartoonish: basketball, triangle, rectangle, watermelon. When you recognize someone at a distance, like at the mall at Christmastime, it’s not based on every flake, flaw and freckle. It’s the simple shapes.”
5 Give them context. “‘If I were to give you random photos, would it help?’ It usually does. I have a big book of photos of people with no hair, and a book of photos of federal prisoners.”
6 Go time. "Then I just start drawing.”
Karen T. Taylor's "Valley Center Jane Doe" case sheds light on her method.
1 In 1999, this mutilated skull fragment and small section of jawbone were found in an avocado grove near San Diego.
2 Taylor "speculatively rebuilds" the skull in clay, running a pencil through the mandibular notch to gauge jaw length.
3 With the aid of tissue-depth markers, Taylor reconstructs the Jane Doe's face.
4 The frontal image.
5 The remains were identified as Sarah Reyes (right), a young mother from Redlands, Calif. Her landlady was charged with her murder, 15 years after her disappearance.