2018-03-02 09:47:02
They Died Near the Border. Art Students Hope to Bring Them Back.

The final moments of life for the eight border crossers whose remains were found in the Arizona desert over the last two summers will always be a mystery. What is clear is the cause of death for them, as for many migrants, recorded by the Pima County medical examiner’s office: “Heat stroke, exposure to hot environment.” “Hyperthermia due to exposure to the elements.” “Dehydration, hypotension and hyperthermia due to environmental exposure to heat in desert.” The list goes on.

The desolation of their deaths in this perilous corridor along the border is compounded by another indignity: The identities of these eight men remained unknown. The traditional tools used by medical examiners to identify human remains, including DNA and dental comparisons, had yet to yield any clues.

Now, a last-ditch effort to identify the dead and help bring closure to their families, has moved from the medical examiner’s office in Tucson to a more rarefied setting: a workshop in facial reconstruction at the New York Academy of Art.

The class, taught by Joe Mullins, a forensic artist with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, focuses on reconstructing the faces of migrants who lost their lives in the desert. The workshop reflects the growing sophistication of the field of forensic facial reconstruction — a fusion of science, art and anthropology in which the skull is used to build a face and to help investigators identify the dead. It is particularly helpful in cases of crime or mass disasters.

Young graduate students, whose rigorous classical training includes anatomy, are working with 3-D-printed replicas of the men’s skulls based on CT-scans of the originals, which are considered forensic evidence.

Painstakingly rendered in clay applied onto the copied skulls, with marbles for eyes and a black Sharpie dot marking the pupils, the students’ reconstructions are being exhibited in the academy windows through March 29.

“We’re visual creatures,” said Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Pima County medical examiner’s office. “When we don’t have a viewable face,” because of decomposition, Dr. Anderson said, “we ask artists to give us the impression of what the person looked like in order to draw attention to a particular case.” The academy reconstructions have been posted on NamUs, the National Institute of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Migrant deaths along the United States border with Mexico rose last year despite a steep decrease in attempted crossings, according to the United Nations Migration Agency. Since 2001, the remains of roughly 2,800 migrants have been found in Pima County alone, represented by a grim sea of red circles on “death maps” produced by the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.

Of these, roughly 1,000 people are still unidentified. Stricter border enforcement and deportation policies have led migrants to cross at more remote and brutal terrain.

“Anyone who spends regular time in this landscape does so with the knowledge of the scale of death and dying,” said Robin Reineke, the co-founder and executive director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson, an advocacy organization that reports on missing migrants and conducts DNA searches. “It’s shocking given the silence our country maintains on this issue.”

Remains are often scattered by vultures and other scavengers, which can pick a body clean in a matter of days. “If there is one thing more dangerous than crossing the Sonoran Desert with a smuggler, it’s crossing by yourself,” Dr. Anderson said.

To a trained eye, the complex structure of the human skull offers a blueprint to the facial features of the deceased. “A skull is the foundation an individual’s face is built on,” said Mr. Mullins, 47. “It’s like a house for your face.”

The class began by analyzing clues: The thickness of the lips, the shape and placement of the eyes, nose and chin, the earlobes, even the curve of the eyebrows are all revealed in the skull.

Forensic reconstruction experts like Mr. Mullins, who specializes in age progression — for example, how a missing child might look years later — seek out distinguishing features, such as scars, a broken nose, or, in one case, braces on the teeth.

He cautions students to leave artistic license at the door. “You have to have that artistic mojo flowing through your veins,” he tells them. “But if you put the wrong face on, that person is going to stay lost.”

Reconstructing a face with scientific accuracy involves rebuilding the muscles and soft tissue layer by layer, using strips of clay. Then the students use cut plastic straws placed on the clay to mark tissue depths, which are based on researchers’ averages for ages, genders and cultural backgrounds. Antonia Barolini, a 23-year-old painting specialist, said she chose the academy because of Mr. Mullins’s class, having dreamed about being an F.B.I. agent.

The skull she was working on had pronounced cheekbones, an uneven jawline and a distinct overbite. The man was 18 to 22 years old when he died, according to the Pima County medical examiner. “He was younger than me,” Ms. Barolini observed. “That part was real hard.”

The class, in its fourth year, grew out of a working relationship between Mr. Mullins and Bradley J. Adams, director of forensic anthropology for the chief medical examiner’s office in New York City, which received a grant from the National Institute of Justice to purchase a 3-D printer. “Facial reconstructions are intended to provide an investigatory lead in cases that have gone cold,” Dr. Adams said. “The hope is that someone who knew the person will see the reconstruction, recognize some similarities and notify the authorities of a potential match.”

Not every skull can be traced to the desert, but many have chilling stories behind them. Madison Haws, 25, an academy painting student, was given an unidentified skull from New York that was recovered in a basement crawl space at a nursing home in Queens, since closed. The woman had lost her teeth, giving her a sunken appearance captured in Ms. Haws’s reconstruction. “Part of me is afraid she was abandoned,” Ms. Haws said. “I hope someone’s looking for her so that her bones will rest in peace.”

She and her colleagues join a line of artists using facial reconstruction, from the ancient Egyptian funerary or death masks used to cover the faces of mummies to anatomists like Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (1656-1701), who recreated facial muscles in wax over real skulls. The academy’s curriculum includes the art of écorché, making “flayed” or “skinned” sculpted figures with exposed muscles (the clay figures are somewhat gruesomely scattered about the students’ paint-splattered studios).

Karen T. Taylor, considered a dean of the profession and a consultant for the television show “CSI,” said the complexity of her rather esoteric occupation is often underestimated, with police personnel sometimes taking on the reconstruction instead of trained artists who work in tandem with anthropologists and odontologists. Among professionals, the balance between artistic skill and scientific standards continues to be debated.

“Practitioners without artistic skills produce less believable and realistic faces, and practitioners without scientific rigor produce faces that are inaccurate and unreliable,” Caroline Wilkinson, director of the School of Art & Design at Liverpool John Moores University in England, said by email. She leads a research-based “Face Lab” whose celebrity depictions have included Richard III, J.S. Bach, Ramesses II and Mary, Queen of Scots.

At the academy, as the faces created by students took shape, the room began to take on the feeling of a hallowed space. “It’s kind of eerie,” said Michael Fusco, 30, a student whose specialty is painting. “They become people.”

Two of the eight migrants wound up being identified independently of the class. But the desert still contains untold numbers of the missing. For Mr. Mullins, the class represents a potential to bring closure to loved ones of those who perished, perhaps while seeking a better life.

“It was a gamble that cost them their lives,” Mr. Mullins said. “But it shouldn’t have to cost them their identity.”