Artist Sculpts to Solve Cold Cases

170019. No name, just a number for a skull found in Pima County, Arizona.

“They really knew nothing other than he was a border crosser and sadly he died of natural causes,” said artist and PAFA student Kathleen Gallo (BFA '20). “All they found was his skull.”

The medical examiner’s office didn’t have much to go on for identification beyond an age range, 20 to 35, and ethnicity, Hispanic.

A 3-D print of the skull and several others eventually made their way to a forensic reconstruction workshop at the New York Academy of Fine Art in 2018. 170019 was assigned to Gallo.

The PAFA student spent a week transforming the bare replica skull into a figure with a face. A face a family could identify.


  • Kathleen Gallo (BFA '20) in the studio.
    Kathleen Gallo (BFA '20) in the studio.
  • The skull Kathleen Gallo used as the basis of her rendering.
    The skull Kathleen Gallo used as the basis of her rendering.
  • Rendering and photograph of the person Gallo helped to identify.
    Rendering and photograph of the person Gallo helped to identify.

“It kind of was a very weird feeling, I really don’t know how to describe how I feel,” she said of her experience with forensic reconstruction.

The deceased’s family positively identified the skull Gallo worked on with forensic artist Joe Mullins.

“A mother somewhere knows what happened to their child now, which I think is really important,” she said.

Gallo hopes to make a career in forensic reconstruction and calls Mullins, a forensic artist from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, her mentor in a very small field.

“There are only 30 full-time forensic artists in the country and I have no idea how I’ll get from point A to point B but at least I know someone who did it,” she said.

Currently Gallo is working on her reconstruction skills in her PAFA studio by working on cold cases. She works the case as if it was open and in need of solving, spending hours molding features on a replica skull, then checking the accuracy of her work against images of the identified deceased person.

“I use a lot of anthropology in the forensic reconstruction,” Gallo said. “The one I’m working on now for example; she is a black and Latina woman. So anthropology speaking as an African American you can see the references come in here in the mouth and how that comes forward or how the bridge is a little bit lower, which is also somewhat of a Latin trait. It all kind of culminates together to create the visual image that law enforcement can use.”

If she does well then Mullins told Gallo he will assign her open cases, giving her the opportunity to assist more law enforcement officials and families looking for answers.

Gallo herself comes from a law-enforcement family.

“All of my family is law enforcement, aunt and uncles are all lawyers,” she said. “So it was expected that I was going to be a lawyer growing up.”

Art won out over law when Gallo was deciding a path to take but she’s proud her work connects her to her family lineage.

When she isn’t sculpting the faces of the unknown, Gallo looks to her family for inspiration. In high school she focused on photorealism and colored pencils, concentrating on drawing and painting hands and mouths.

“My mom is hearing impaired and we would use sign language and lip talk to each other,” she said. “Everything is very family-related in a lot of my work, the work that isn’t skull related.”

Her current studio space features paintings of the family she misses in Chicago. She worked for nine months on a portrait of her grandmother at a Chicago restaurant to go along with a long-running family joke.

“Portillo’s is a Chicago hot dog restaurant. It was my favorite place ever growing up and every time my family goes without me they send me a picture,” she said. “So I thought it would be funny to paint it as like a huge painting.”

When Granny Kathy visited Philadelphia earlier this summer Gallo surprised her with “Kathy at Portillo’s.”

“She cried but then said, ‘Why did you put my age spots in, you could have made me look younger’,” Gallo said.

Gallo isn’t sure how these family portraits relate to her anthropological work but she needs the emotional outlet.

“I need it as an outlet because the reconstruction is too serious sometimes,” she said. “It’s very serious and this is something I’m very comfortable with. I’m really far away from home and really close to my family, so it’s really nice to come into the studio and have them here.”