By Cassandra J. Sproles
On the south end of Neyland Stadium in a little corner of the osteology lab is the “desk of last resort.” It’s there that Joanna Hughes (’02) works with human skulls, hoping they will give up their secrets as she molds clay around mouths, chins, and cheekbones.
As a forensic artist, Hughes often is the last resort when it comes to cold cases—some decades old—that just can’t be solved. She gets calls from law enforcement agencies nationwide asking for her uniquely artistic skills.
The process begins with a skull from a decomposed body. She cleans the skull and begins using clay to build up facial features that are determined by natural markers on the bone. Her end goal is to give “a face—and a voice—to the dead.”
“When I have a case, I don’t concentrate on how the person died, but on what his or her skull tells me,” Hughes says. “I work and rework the same bits of clay for days at a time, and then, gradually, I find the face and its eyes begin to come alive.”
She has brought twenty faces to life. Two of these reconstructions reside in the Smithsonian and three have been in UT’s McClung Museum. Out of the twenty reconstructions, five were part of previously unsolved cases that were brought to a close because of her work.
Hughes says she never has a good answer for people when they ask why she became a forensic artist.
“It is what I’m meant to do,” she says.
Her curiosity in human bones was piqued at an early age by her father, who was a doctor, and by a facial reconstruction she saw in a newspaper when she was in elementary school.
While looking into colleges, Hughes says she could never find anyone who could tell her which courses she needed to take for forensic art. When she came to UT, her questions were answered with the College Scholars individualized program, which allowed her to construct her own major. Picking and choosing courses that fit her goals allowed her to become the first person at UT to earn a degree in forensic art.
“It was a huge relief to be able to design my own degree,” she says. Her course work consisted of artistic classes like sculpture and life drawing, mixed with medical classes in which she studied teeth, bones, and anatomy.
All of these things have prepared Hughes to help those who come to her as their last resort.
“I’m genuinely surprised and delighted each time one of my sculptures helps identify someone,” she says. “It’s a wonderfully satisfying experience.”