by Nancy E. McCarthy
The Fine Art of Family
In 2017, at age 17, Olivia Garlock of Cheshire became the youngest Certified Composite Artist in the United States. Composite drawing is a type of forensic art. Artists use witness descriptions to create sketches that can identify or eliminate crime suspects. Olivia’s first class was intimidating, but as she learned the skills necessary for composite drawing, she ultimately discovered her passion: combining art with science.
Those who know Olivia best aren’t surprised by this accomplishment – including her mother Michelle, also an artist. “Olivia loved being in the studio with me even as an infant,” says Michelle. “As soon as I knew she wouldn’t eat the art materials, I was offering her my leftover paint and canvases. She made several finger paintings, hand paintings and even body paintings before she could even hold a brush.”
This young artist has progressed considerably since then. “My favorite subject matter is the human body, especially portraits. Since I can do portraits as a fine artist, medical illustrator and composite artist, I truly love all three,” says Olivia, 22, who now lives in Rush.
Olivia is taking medical illustration and other art courses through the School of Individualized Study program at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). After she graduates in May 2023 with her bachelor’s degree in science and art, her goal is to work for a company that commissions illustrations for science textbooks, websites and other applications. She also plans to pursue a master’s degree in medical illustration.
“My mom encouraged me to continue to pursue my passions by showing me that it is possible to use your talent to build a sustainable career,” says Olivia.
All in the Family
In 2000, Olivia’s birth year, Michelle opened Master Peace Painting (MPP), a decorative arts business. In 2010, her husband Gary, a construction contractor, joined MPP to expand its offerings. MPP’s services today include interior house painting, replacement windows, siding, roofing and deck construction.
They raised Olivia and younger daughter Sophia in Cheshire. (Sophia, now a SUNY Brockport college student, is also artistic; her preferred focus is 3-D and digital art.) In addition to Olivia’s enduring interest in art she also loved nature and animals, enjoyed reading and creative writing, singing, playing guitar and, later, songwriting. She attended Lima Christian School, where her mother taught 6-12th grade art classes from 2015 until the spring of 2022. Michelle was Olivia’s high school art teacher.
“Olivia was such an easy student. She often acted more as an assistant,” says Michelle. “She would jump in and demonstrate techniques to fellow students.”
Falling into Forensic Art
In 2013, to improve her portraiture skills, Michelle began studying with Carrie Stuart Parks, a renowned fine artist and forensic artist, teacher and author. Carrie and her husband Rick (a former FBI forensic artist) founded Stuart Parks Forensic Associates (SPFA) over 30 years ago. SPFA offers composite and forensic art classes and related certifications.
After taking portraiture classes with Carrie, Michelle became intrigued with composite art and pursued the certification. Later, she would study forensic art and also certify. Michelle and Carrie became teaching colleagues and friends.
Meanwhile, Olivia’s interest was piqued to take composite classes, too. After reviewing Olivia’s artwork, Carrie accepted Olivia, at age 15, into her 40-hour intro class “Composite Drawing for Law Enforcement” hosted by a South Carolina police department. There was another teenage participant but the rest of her classmates were adult detectives, patrol, SWAT team, dispatchers and other law enforcement personnel. She continued the coursework each year, 120 hours in all, until she certified. “When I certified with all those badass adults at 17 years old, I felt so cool,” she says.
“Olivia is an amazingly talented artist. She is both gifted and has studied her craft,” says Carrie. “A rare gem polished to perfection.”
Olivia enrolled at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) and graduated in May 2020 with an A.S. in Fine Arts. Professor Sarah Morgan, her advisor and one of her painting instructors, says: “I really enjoyed having Olivia as a student. She is unique in her combination of ability, focus and humility.” Morgan saw Olivia’s art skills flourish at FLCC. “The end of her final semester was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, but she was still able to finish strong with a large painting of a person in a gas mask.” It was Olivia’s visual commentary on the unfolding pandemic.
Another FLCC professor, Liz Brownell, recommended Olivia to IEC Electronics in Newark, who were looking to commission a watercolor of their new headquarters. “There was no doubt in my mind that Olivia could provide them with an extraordinary solution to their illustration needs,” says Brownell. “I had no doubt after having her in class that she would be dependable and timely. Olivia is a multi-talented artist with a humble and beautiful personality and extraordinary work ethic.”
Though Olivia had already been commissioned by friends and family, the IEC painting was her first big professional project. Olivia completed the painting in September 2020 as she continued her education at RIT.
The 2022-23 school year is her last at RIT. Olivia continues to work at a medical office and takes commissions when she can. “I try to slow down while I’m in school, however, I am terrible at slowing down,” Olivia admits. “I realize that this is a lot on my plate, but I’m prepared to dedicate this year strictly to school and work.” She worked on several projects recently: a composite-style poster of a musician, a tattoo sleeve design and three portraits. Her clients find her through word-of-mouth or social media.
She is already an accomplished professional artist, but after graduation Olivia will start her art career for real. “Art is how I can work without working a single day in my life,” she says.
The Process of Composite Sketching
Olivia’s composite sketch materials consist of an identification fact sheet, a facial identification catalog, pencils, a ruler, a pad of Bristol paper and erasers.
During a 2016 class, a fellow student role-played as a witness. He viewed a mugshot for three minutes, set the photograph aside and described what he remembered. After recording his observations on the identification fact sheet, Olivia set up a facial grid with her ruler. “Since every face is different, I don’t stick to this grid religiously,” Olivia explains. “For example, this suspect’s cheeks were described as full, so I rounded the cheeks and extended them beyond the gridlines.” She drew the basic outlines of the suspect’s features and reviewed it with her witness.
After artist and witness felt confident with the outline, Olivia erased the gridlines and began shading the primary identifiable features: eyes, nose, mouth. Then she moved to eyebrows, cheeks, chin and neck. Hair, clothes and adding minor details tightened up the sketch. Once completed, she showed the drawing to the witness again and made final changes.
“At the end of this assignment, we were able to see the mugshot and check the accuracy of my composite,” says Olivia. “We were pleasantly surprised with the end result!”
A Chat with Michelle Garlock
Michelle Garlock, with a B.S. in art therapy, is a fine artist, certified composite and forensic artist, art instructor, jewelry maker and photographer. Her first art career was in the decorative arts. Currently she splits her time between teaching art and her own studio work. Michelle is also co-writing a drawing instruction book with Carrie Stuart Parks. When I caught up with Michelle to discuss her daughter’s artistic journey, I asked about hers as well.
What is your artist’s statement?
My passion for creating art is inspired by the beauty in nature. I find the intricacies, colors, forms and compositions breathtaking and I hope to share these with others through my work. To be able to visibly represent in some small way the amazing things that God has created is both humbling and enriching.
What is your favorite medium and subject matter?
I adore graphite! To create a visually stunning piece of art with only a pencil and a piece of paper still amazes me. Sometimes the process feels almost magical. Lately I have been exploring charcoal and am gaining a newfound joy in its expressiveness and the depth of contrast that can be created. My favorite subject matter is nature, especially birds and horses. They represent a sort of freedom, beauty and strength.
How did learning composite sketching come about?
Around 2006, when I was drawing portraits of my children, I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. I discovered a book called Secrets to Drawing Realistic Faces by Carrie Stuart Parks and found the missing piece. I read that book several times, underlined key phrases, made notes and absorbed it into my very soul! My technical skills skyrocketed. Soon after that, I was asked to teach a portraiture class. I knew how to create portraits but I wasn’t confident in my skills to teach it. So, I went online to see if Carrie taught any in-person classes, and she did. I traveled to her Idaho studio in 2013 to take the first of many classes with her. During this portraiture class, she spoke about composite art. My original intention was to learn how she taught portraiture, but I got hooked on composite art! To become a certified composite artist through Stuart Parks Forensic Associates required three specific 40-hour classes. My first was in Idaho. By the second class in Dallas, Texas, Carrie asked if I would be her teacher assistant for the drawing portion of the classes. I couldn’t believe my ears! Since then, I have taught composite art with her in California, New Jersey and South Carolina.
Why did you continue on for a forensic art certification? It seems like you just love learning, stretching and growing as an artist.
I feel the most alive when I am learning and teaching. Forensic art encompasses composite and courtroom drawings, crime scene diagramming, facial reconstruction and more for law enforcement or legal proceedings. The certification requires an additional 120 intensive coursework hours. Forensic art was intriguing, and I studied with some of the best instructors in the world. The seemingly random things that I learn tend to come together at some point to make me a stronger artist and teacher. Not to mention the funny stories I collect along the way! I weave these stories into my teaching.
Visit masterpeacepainting.com to learn more about Michelle’s artwork. Visit her solo exhibit at Milk & Honey Café in Lima. The opening reception on Saturday, November 19th, 5-7:30PM, is open to the public. The exhibit runs through December 2022.
Follow Olivia Garlock on Instagram @ogdoesart. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.