Over the last two years I’ve been invited to work with a high school teacher in Mora Minnesota. Mr. Larsen teaches a forensic art section to his kids and introduces them to my world of sketching and interviewing. The Real Beauty Sketches campaign of 2013 really gave me some exposure around the world and it prompted Mr. Larsen to congratulate me and then ask me if I would talk to his class about forensic art. I have visited classrooms around the San Jose area since 1996 and really enjoyed talking to the kids and showing my sketch comparisons. The kids loved it and the teachers thought it was a great idea. The one thing that all of the teachers raved about was how engaged the kids were when they participated in the sketch demonstration.
I decided that part of my demonstration would be to draw a sketch of someone based on their comments. The kids in the first through fourth grades thought it was hilarious. We would come up with sketches of monsters with mohawks (for some reason they thought mohawks were funny) and warts on their huge noses. I explained that I would ask them the same questions I asked my eyewitnesses in actual cognitive sketch interviews and that we would have some fun trying to figure out what this fictional character did to the kids when he came onto the school grounds. Most of the times the kids rallied around a story about how the suspect chased them into an ice cream store and he ran away leaving them to choose their favorite flavor on a cone. The sketches were caricatures of some really weird dudes. I left most of them with the teachers and let them decide how they might hand them out to deserving students.
In some of the high schools I visited I was challenged to sketch someone that was known to the classroom. The teacher would tell the class that I was coming in to talk to them about forensic art and that I would be conducting a demonstration about my interview technique. For me, it was just another interview with an eyewitness and about 25 of her closest friends in the room. I would ask the host teacher to have the subject be a man since most of the sketches I created were of male suspects. They usually obliged and most of the time the teacher or administrator was on the grounds to come into the classroom after my sketch to show the kids the actual comparison.
For the most part the kids were impressed with the sketch and I was surprised at how close the sketch matched the real man. You see, I was confident in my process, I just wasn’t sure how the lack of latent trauma would affect the likeness of the sketch to the subject. After conducting over 30 of these sketch demonstrations over the last 18 years I can say that the lack of an actual criminal event to the eyewitness had no negative effect on the ability of the eyewitness to provide the information to create the sketch. Time and time again I would explain my process to the class and the students would follow along with me as I interviewed their classmates. In some classes I would ask the students to sketch along with me.
They sketched along with me as I did with my mentor, Tom Macris back in 1993, when he interviewed the eyewitnesses in his office. I sketched along on a desk about 5 feet away, and he conducted the interview. I couldn’t ask the eyewitness anything and I couldn’t see what changes they asked Tom to make on his sketch. The only time I got to compare his sketch to mine was after the eyewitness left the office. The similarities were remarkable, and at the time insignificant to my progression as a forensic artist. In my class demonstrations I would go around the classroom and ask the kids to show me their sketches. Amazingly, you could see the similarities in how they interpreted the information they were hearing from my interview. I would tell them, the difference between your sketch and mine is that I’ve been drawing faces for over 30 years. Image what you might do if you kept at it? I could see the kids marveling at their neighbors sketches. Some of them were more polished than others and most of them were cartoon-like and funny.
I tried to bring this type of demonstration to my forensic art colleagues in 2010. I was asked to speak at the International Association for Identification conference in Spokane, WA where forensic artist from around the US were attending. I called my workshop: Liberating your Sketches. I knew that every single person that might attend my workshop was conducting their sketch interviews in what I call the Standard Methodology (the old FBI technique where the artist uses reference images to stimulate the memory of the eyewitness). What I was hoping is that I would get a good turnout and show them something different. Show them something I’ve been doing since 1996. The attendance was great and I got to meet some really great people. I could sense the anticipation in the room and as I turned on my projector I told the forensic artists to grab there pencils and drawing pad and to get ready. The room filled with chatter about what they were going to do. I told them that they were going to hear an audio of an actual sketch interview I had conducted a while back and that they were going to sketch along with me. As the video played their attention to the information from the witness was amazing as they sketched and erased lines with great purpose. When the audio ended about 25 minutes later some of the artists wanted more time and looked around at their neighbors pads to see how they had fared. When I showed the actual sketch I created from that interview and they compared their sketches the room filled with amazement as to their accomplishments. Every one of the sketches in the room looked similar to my sketch and despite the lack of finished quality in some of them most of them were very good. I challenged the artists to go back and continue to conduct the interviews without reference images and I offered them my guidance in the future. Many of them just smiled and said they would try, while others said that they would have to keep practicing. Others said that they enjoyed being stretched out of their comfort zone.
Every time I conduct a demonstration of a cognitive sketch with students and colleagues I’m brought back to my training with Tom. When I started my apprenticeship with him there was no structured curriculum in becoming a forensic artist. We learned on the job and looking back I think it (sketching while Tom interviewed the witness) was a great way to observe the interview and train myself to be an advanced listener. Interestingly enough after some of these interview sessions, I would ask Tom about a particular interview where I was curious as to the statements made by the witness, and he would often say, “I have never heard anyone say that before.” I knew then that I had to be prepared for anything and that I had to be flexible in moving forward with the interview. Just as the kids in the classroom would throw me off the wall features to sketch in response to my questions, I had to be ready for anything and my interview technique needed to be sound.