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A Cold Case Victim Is Honored by the Artist Who Reconstructed Her Face

Sculptures of the unidentified crime victim by Stefania Panepinto (2015) (all images courtesy the artist)
Sculptures of the unidentified crime victim by Stefania Panepinto (2015) (all images courtesy the artist)

This January at the New York Academy of Art (NYAA), 11 students sculpted faces for 11 unidentified crime victims as part of a Forensic Sculpture Workshop. Recently one of those students, Stefania Panepinto, was notified that her subject had finally been identified, over three decades since her decomposed remains were found off Route 63 in Shelby, New York, in 1983.

Panepinto's in-progress sculpture of the then-unidentified victim from the Forensic Sculpture Workshop
Sefania Panepinto’s side-by-side sculptures of the now-identified crime victim

“Since these cases were now actively being worked on, the Medical Examiner’s office DNA tested our missing victims before we started reconstructing their faces using digital replicas of their skulls,” she explained to Hyperallergic. It was through that DNA analysis that the Medical Examiner found a match, which at this time has not been disclosed by choice of the family.

Panepinto was moved by the experience of spending intimate lengths of time with a replica of the victim’s skull and the scarce details about her — that she had fine, light-colored orangish-blonde hair, that she was about 5′ 4″. She decided to honor this long anonymous person with two side-by-side sculptures, which are going on view as part of the MFA Thesis exhibition opening on Tuesday (May 19).

“I felt an obligation to immortalize my victim by creating a beautiful, iconic memorial sculpture as a tribute to how life goes on after death,” she stated. One sculpture is smooth and unharmed, the other more visceral revealing “the reality of the vulnerability, neglect, pain, and loss of life.”

Replicas of the unidentified skulls
Replicas of the unidentified skulls in the Forensic Sculpture Workshop

The workshop, led by Joe Mullins who is a forensic artist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, focused on rebuilding identities for cold case victims. These images were added to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database, and also shared with the New York City Police Department. Panepinto’s new sculptural pair expresses the emotional experience of initially confronting the table of skulls on the first day of the workshop, then her “days spent looking into her [victim’s] eyes and bringing her to life.” While she was required to create a neutral expression with simple hair for the workshop, where she constructed a face from bone to muscle to skin, for her thesis project she saw an opportunity to explore the more emotional aspect of the experience.

“My hope is that by creating these sculptures it will bring awareness to the community of the thousands of faceless victims that are asking for the chance to be found,” she said.

Panepinto's in-progress sculpture of the then-unidentified victim from the Forensic Sculpture Workshop
Panepinto’s in-progress sculpture of the then-unidentified victim from the Forensic Sculpture Workshop

The New York Academy of Art MFA Thesis Exhibition is May 19 to 30 at the Academy’s Wilkinson Gallery (New York Academy of Art, 111 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan).

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