NEW YORK, March 11 ― Kristen Pedote signed up for the New York Academy of Art not just to hone her skills as an artist, but to also help others with her skill.
The 22-year-old graduate student from Oceanside, New York and about a dozen of her classmates collaborated 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 US.
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,” John Volk said, 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, turns 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, which is also in Lower Manhattan, 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 point is to identify people. Two of the cases have been identified through DNA analysis, Volk said.
Pedote said the five days it takes to create the busts 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 project is a mix between skulls from migrants and unidentified skulls found in New York. Student Madison Haws said her skull was of a woman found in Queens, New York in 1993 at a home for the mentally ill. The medical examiner's office is not sure whether the woman who was found in a basement crawl space after the facility had closed down was a resident.
“You don't want to make them look sad, even though you feel kind of sad, you just want to like, try to keep a distance while allowing your emotions to motivate you to kind of, get through it,” Haws said.
According to a Mexican Congressional report backed by US and Mexican border groups and academics, at least 6,000 Mexicans have died trying to cross the border from Mexico to the US since 2000.
And at the start of last year, a high number of migrant deaths from Pima County alone added even more deaths to the total, from a single county on the US-Mexican border. The deaths were likely the result of hypothermia or dehydration.
Tougher security along the US-Mexico border is forcing migrants to take more dangerous, remote routes to cross into the United States and pushing up the number of deaths in the Sonoran Desert.
Meanwhile, 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