It’s crazy the things you think about when someone is trying to kill you,” says Lois Gibson, remembering the time, years ago, when she was sexually assaulted and almost choked to death by an attacker. I’ll never have children, I’ll never finish college, thought the then-21-year-old Los Angeleno, who blacked out four times before her assailant finally released her, leaving a bloodied Gibson on the floor of her apartment. She never reported the crime, fearing that the police might try to pin the blame on her, a model and dancer on a local TV program. One day while driving, Gibson turned onto a wrong street where she actually witnessed her attacker getting arrested for a different crime: cocaine possession. She suddenly saw a purpose to return to school and pursue a degree in art.
That’s the moment that Gibson, now 65, returns to when asked about her career as a forensic artist for the Houston Police Department, a career that by all accounts has been remarkable. Over the past 33 years, she has sketched thousands of portraits of burglars, rapists, murderers and other criminals, and no one in the world has done it better, at least according to Guinness, which in 2004 declared Gibson the world record holder for “most criminals positively identified due to the composites of one artist”—1,266.
These days Gibson sketches about 120 portraits a year, meaning that hardly a day goes by when she isn’t hearing about crimes recollected—gruesome and otherwise—by victims and witnesses, children and adults, although she says that obtaining such information comes easier and easier to her these days. Sometimes it’s her own victim experience that gets them to open up, sometimes it’s her comforting and outgoing demeanor, sometimes it’s her way of convincing them that such portraits might ultimately prove cathartic.
“For their whole life I am the author of making them feel better about something they’re never going to forget,” she says. “When they see the sketch it gives them hope for justice.”
Typically, 30 percent of these sketches lead to an arrest, and the only thing more astounding than Gibson’s success rate is how often law enforcement still discounts the importance of forensic artists, she says, even now. But for years she has proved them wrong, going all the way back to 1982 when Gibson first interviewed a witness who’d seen someone stab a man to death in Memorial Park. The young man was hysterical and the portrait an embarrassment, the artist recalls. The face was smudged and half-finished, and the suspect looked like he was sucking a lemon. Nevertheless, just a day later, a detective called Gibson with the news that her sketch had helped solve the case. It was her first “hit,” as she calls it.
“I thought, If that sketch, that pitiful sketch, stopped a guy that was killing someone, like somebody tried to kill me—oh that’s it, I’m never going to stop,” Gibson says.
And so she hasn’t. She has branched out, however. A few years back, Wendy Morgan Cohen reached out to Gibson via email after seeing her sketch of a crime suspect on the 10 o’clock news. Cohen, who had never seen her grandparents but whose father, a Holocaust survivor, remembered their faces, wondered if Gibson could try to bring them back to life through portraiture. That project led her to four other survivors who wanted portraits of family members, and eventually an exhibition, “Soul Survivors,” running through September at the Holocaust Museum Houston.
“I want to give [them] an image to carry on…and show the world their heritage,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “They can pull back a piece of what they lost.”
Her project to sketch Holocaust victims has elicited different sorts of reactions. One grateful survivor’s daughter told Gibson that her portrait of her mother was perfect, even as someone else refused to let her draw his relative, because he couldn’t bear to look into his eyes.
Of all the portraits she has sketched under difficult circumstances, and there have been many, Gibson says that her Holocaust works were the most painful she has ever created. But they have also brought her the most satisfaction.
“I’m used to people that see somebody drive by at 50 miles of hour…these teeny little moments that they see somebody run by, whereas [the survivors] saw their family their whole life,” she says, now crying. “The grief was so much deeper.”
Gibson also teaches her craft to young artists at Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, as well as the Institute of Forensic Art here at home, a school she founded in 2012. There, she instructs 14 to 20 students at a time in the fine art of reconstructing faces from skulls, sketching faces of suspects from witness memory, drawing age progression portraits and more. Gibson believes that thanks to the development of facial recognition systems, forensic artists will soon be in high demand, as law enforcement agencies will finally realize how valuable they can be.
“I’m going to teach as many artists as I can before I go to the big drawing board in the sky,” she chuckles.
And if any spare time remains, perhaps Gibson will put her talents to a more conventional purpose. After all, the walls of her Spring home are decorated with oil paintings of family members, as well as surreal images in acrylic, and watercolor landscapes of places she’s been—works that she hopes will one day land in a gallery.
Given that, one might expect her to look forward to a time when, like other artists, she can devote herself solely to creating the beautiful. But she doesn’t. On the contrary, Gibson can’t imagine ever retiring. Why? There’s nothing like that feeling of getting a hit.
“It’s addicting if you catch one. You want to get them again.”
“Soul Survivors” runs at the Holocaust Museum Houston, hmh.org, through Sept. 13.