Sculptor brings identities to life with facial reconstruction

Daniel Marion still works as a forensic sculptor and also teaches a class on the process at Metropolitan State University in Denver. (Sara Hertwig/Metropolitan State University)

As he works with clay to re-create the most reasonable likeness of the face from the skull of an unidentified individual, Daniel Marion says he often thinks of lines from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”:

“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable…”

It reminds him that what he’s doing is not just a science problem. “We’re all that man, we’re all that person,” said the UWM alumnus who is an International Association for Identification (IAI) Certified Specialist in forensic facial reconstruction. “It’s horrible that anyone could go unidentified.”

Marion, a graduate of North Division High School, earned his bachelor’s in fine arts, art and art education and a master’s in fine arts from the Peck School of the Arts.  He earned a doctorate, in curriculum and instruction, at the University of Denver. He lives and works in Colorado, where he helps law enforcement officials put a name to unidentified persons.

Daniel Marion works with a fake skull in class. (Sara Hertwig/Metropolitan State University)

“The remains are often found in the mountains where someone attempted to get rid of the body,” Marion said. “They’re always cold cases, and often a homicide. I don’t investigate and I don’t identify people, I take the given skull and produce the most reasonable likeness based on my skills and knowledge of anatomy to provide a lead for law enforcement.”

Marion credits a UWM mold-making class taught by Narendra Patel, who’s now a professor emeritus of art and design, with assisting his forensic career. As a 3-D forensic artist with the IAI, he is one of only two who still knows how to make a mold from a skull.

“Daniel is soft-spoken and intellectual with a deep understanding of art in general,” Patel said. “His contributions in the fields of forensics and art education are admirable.”

Patel and his former student remain close, getting together a couple days a year, “just chatting over a Guinness.”

Marion, who retired after a long career teaching art in Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, became interested in forensic sculpture while doing graduate work at what’s now Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. A fellow student showed him a Wall Street Journal article about Betty Pat Gatliff, a pioneering forensic artist. He’d never heard of the specialty, but he was intrigued. It was a few years later before he got the opportunity to sign up for a two-day workshop on facial reconstruction at the Denver Museum of Natural History.

“I completed two reconstructions in two days, while other students did one or didn’t even finish one,” Marion said. His instructor, Michael Charney, who had a doctorate in anthropology, wrote a letter of recommendation, which he took with one of his reconstructions to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office to ask about work.

He talked to the chief deputy coroner, who laughed and walked away. “I thought she could have at least said no thank you,” Marion recalled. “She returned with a skull and said, ‘Get to work.’’ That was 27 years ago. Now, Marion continues the work as an on-call freelancer for the Colorado Coroner’s Association.

Although DNA testing and other scientific advances have helped law enforcement with many cold cases, such technologies (for example, DNA) require having a matching database to compare to the DNA taken from the remains. So, when other leads are exhausted, Marion gets the call.

UWM gives breadth of experience

He discovered his passion for sculpture at UWM. “I realized I could better understand the illusions of form in a drawing if I sculpted them,” he said. “Turning that corner helped me realize I wanted to work in three dimensions.”

Although sculpture was his primary interest, he is grateful for UWM’s well-rounded art education he received. “I explored visual art, music, theater and dance,” he said. “I took a multitude of art classes ­— jewelry, printmaking, weaving courses.”

That breadth of experience was the foundation for his teaching career, he said, because schools often seek instructors experienced in many artistic mediums. He teaches art-based adult education classes at the Metropolitan State University in Denver.

But the work of a forensic sculptor can be challenging. Marion remembers a particularly difficult case. The body had been dumped into a river, and after he removed the remaining soft tissue, he discovered a bullet had fractured the skull. “I had a pile of bone shards that had to be glued back together,” he said.

Marion said his work doesn’t provide closure for families, but it does provide certainty. “Usually if someone has been missing for a long time, the family has already come to the conclusion their loved one may no longer with us,” he said. “It’s more a matter of knowing for sure, to resolve that issue. Are they, or are they not?”

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