Forensic sculptor Amanda Danning reconstructs faces from the past using science, history and art.
“When you have a complete skull, the process is 95 percent science and 5 percent artistic license,” said Danning, a native of Mabank, Texas, who now lives and works in Columbus, Texas. “I think one of the things that sets me apart is my overarching concern for complete historical accuracy.”
Before she begins any project, Danning and her husband, James Brasher, an accomplished amateur historian whose family arrived in the region in 1821, collect and study all of the historical, medical, archaeological and anthropological reports.
“My projects are limited to the realm of history,” said Danning, noting her “youngest” subject lived 130 years ago and her oldest known as “Son of America or SAM” lived 11,000 years ago. “I get so deeply involved in the story that it’s as if I’m creating a biography of them.”
She restricts her exposure to materials and experiences that could influence the end result. For instance, Danning has reconstructed the faces of five Mexican soldiers who fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. It was determined these soldiers came from the region of Vera Cruz. Before starting the reconstructions, she purposely avoided looking at men, both in photos and in person, from that geographic region.
“Bones tell their own stories—and I want them to say as much as they can before I’m influenced by what I can see,” Danning said.
The motor skills—the manipulation of the clay and the means of making it permanent—involved in forensic sculpture are the same as those used in fine art sculpture. Her forensic work, though, requires an intense understanding of facial anatomy.
“Humans have 43 muscles in our faces, which can affect everything from the fullness of our lips to how and where eye bags or wrinkles appear as we reach a certain age,” Danning said.
The first step is aligning a skull on a sculpture stand with laser-level precision using a standard known as Frankfort Horizontal Plane. To accurately reconstruct the face, Danning refers to tables that enumerate the average depth of flesh to skin calculated specific to ethnicities, genders, ages, and time periods, and then applies soft tissue depth markers, small erasers cut to .25 mm of the standard, over the skull. Next, she begins to apply clay around the depth markers to create the major muscles.
She continues working and shaping the clay to refine the face. The finishing touches, which are more subject to interpretation, include hair and eyebrows. Even these features are based on concrete clues provided by ethnicity and history. In the case of the San Jacinto soldiers, the Mexican Army had regulations governing hairstyle.
“I leave the depth markers in place until there is nothing left but skin texture to be done, so I don’t mess up the science,” Danning said.
Because of her commitment to anatomical and historical accuracy, Danning earned the opportunity to work with the nation’s top museums including the Smithsonian. Her projects have been featured on the History and National Geographic channels as well in six books.
“Sometimes my career surprises me,” Danning said. “I was at the right place at the right time to take advantage of the right opportunities—and then I worked hard to make the most of them and my talents.”
The Professional Path
After graduating with a master’s degree in sculpture from Florida Atlantic University, Danning her sights on a career in oil painting and sculpture in Washington D.C.
When her career as a fine artist failed to launch as quickly as she hoped, Danning began working in museum support services, eventually opening her own Texas-based firm, Post Oak Interests.
In 2005, she undertook a project for Bosque Memorial Museum, which included a facial reconstruction. Dr. Douglas J. Owsley, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, was the project consultant. Impressed by her work, Owsley hired her to complete the next five facial reconstructions scheduled for the Smithsonian. Almost 20 years to the day she arrived in Washington, she found herself back with a new career.
“I hope to be described as more than a forensic sculptor,” Danning, who also creates fine art sculptures of iconic Texas wildlife and horses as well as portraits and landscapes rendered in oils or pastels, said. “An artist’s job is to capture what we see every day, but in our go-go-go world never slow down to appreciate.”
She continued, “I hope that my work causes people to pause—and plays a small part in keeping them in touch with our history, our humanity and the beauty of the natural world that they might’ve otherwise missed.”
Story by: Lorie A. Woodward
Photo courtesy of Amanda Danning
Editors Note: Danning’s art is displayed locally at the Copper Shade Tree, Round Top, The Art Connection in La Grange, and the Live Oak Art Center, Columbus. See more of her work at amandadanning.com or contact her at [email protected]