Friday, July 29, 2011

Frank Bender

Today my mom asked me if I had ever heard of forensic sculpture and I replied that yes, I had and that Philadelphia happened to be the home of an amazing forensic sculptor. Seeing as this was a pretty random question, I asked my mom why... She told me that she had read an article about "a famous old guy" that had died yesterday and sure enough it was Frank Bender. He was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2009 and wasn't expected to live more than a few months, but according to the Philadelphia Inquirer article, his daughter had said he lived longer than anyone had expected and that he had a pretty good year.

I feel like a forensic sculptor is not the type of job you dream of when you're little, but I think that Frank Bender definitely inspired sculptors. I remember when I told my first year figure modeling classes about him, they were so excited. You could tell that it opened up their minds to the wider possibilities of sculpture in the world and specifically how it can be used to help people, which I thought was a pretty big deal.

For anyone who has never heard of Frank Bender here is a bit about him from his website:

Frank Bender is an autodidact forensic and fine artist. His talent for forensic facial reconstruction, working first with the Philadelphia police department, then with the FBI, America’s Most Wanted, Scotland Yard and the governments of Mexico and Egypt, has made him widely recognized as a leader in his field.

Frank began his career as a commercial photographer. He had little formal training in sculpture, but one day, his fascination with anatomy brought him to the Philadelphia morgue. There he discovered a remarkable ability: the capacity to intuit the form and personality of a human face from its fleshless skull. Entrusted with the skull of a murder victim, he returned shortly with his first bust. Soon he had the first of many IDs: Anna Duvall. Several years later, after he received his first large monument commission, he closed his photography studio, ceased his advertising work, and set out on a second, very different career as a forensic and fine artist. Since the early 70s, Frank’s ceramic busts have led to the identification of numerous murder victims and the apprehension of fugitive killers. He has also provided faces to Akhmim mummies and the remains of a 5,300 year old man.

In 1989 America’s Most Wanted commissioned Frank to produce a bust of John Emil List. List was an accountant from New Jersey who, in 1971, killed his wife, mother and children, parked his car at Kennedy Airport and disappeared. The challenge was to show List as he would have looked after 18 years on the lam. Frank’s bust was perfect, down to the pair of square glasses that he intuited List would wear. Based on Frank’s model, List, now remarried and living in Denver, was identified by a neighbor, captured and convicted. America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh called it the most brilliant piece of detective work he had ever seen, and kept the John List bust in his office for many years.

Frank has a duel career as a fine artist. His watercolors, pastels, sculptures and monuments are in many private and public collections. These playful, emotionally charged works not only display his skills working across several mediums but, often informed by his forensic work, they are also exemplary cases of the connection between fine art and public service.

Images from and

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