Law enforcement and art may seem like an unlikely couple, but they’ve been together for a long, long time. Police sketch artists’ talents and attention to detail have advanced many cases (admittedly, not all for the best).

Today, most composite sketches are created using software. But the observant eye and careful hand of an artist still have a lot to offer, and Joe Mullins knows it. The forensic imaging specialist recently hosted his second-ever forensic sculpture workshop, in which students worked to reconstruct the faces of unidentified skulls found in New York City. (They worked with replicas of the skulls.) By the end of the workshop, each student had produced a detailed clay head that police could check against their list of cold cases.

When the trail goes cold on a missing persons case, families are left with grief but no answers. They don’t know where their loved one is, or if he or she is still alive. The lack of closure can be devastating.

Then there’s the other side: the backlog of unidentified human remains in the hands of the New York City police. Sculptural reconstruction is the best chance these John and Jane Does have.

“They lost their identity,” Mullins told his students last year. “We’re going to give it back to them.” 

So far the workshop has yielded at least one match. In this video from Great Big Story, sculptor Marco Palli shows his process and talks about the experience of helping the police solve a cold case—and getting a letter of gratitude from the man's family.  

Header image from YouTube // Great Big Story