Shawn Feeney and The BFF Project


At Work

By day, the Oakland artist Shawn Feeney works in the art department of Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects division of Lucasfilm. By night, he uses his training in forensic art to draw charcoal portraits that combine the features of strangers who submitted their photos to him on the Internet.

How did you get into forensic art?

I’ve been drawing as long as I remember. My dad is a cop on Long Island, and whenever I would visit him at the police station, I would visit the forensic artists. They would critique my drawings of X-Men. In 2006, my dad told me that his police department was hiring a civilian forensic artist. I took a three-week course in forensic facial imaging at the FBI academy in Quantico. It covered the interview process, facial anatomy, age progressions and postmortem drawings. I tend to be obsessive, meticulous, but it helped me loosen up. You can’t expect a witness to sit there for five hours while you draw every little pore on the face.

How did you conceive of the BFF project?

As a forensic artist, I was getting all this training in how to combine faces for the utilitarian purpose of drawing a criminal suspect. So I thought, What if I did the opposite, drawing something that would be the product of a great friendship? I was also interested in the idea of the gift economy, and how art could end up in the hands of someone who wasn’t expecting it.

How does the project work?

On my Web site, I let people submit photos of themselves and a friend. Then I combine the two faces in a charcoal drawing, which I will eventually give to the friend of the person who sent in the photos, when the project is over. That’s the first series: sixty-four drawings based on 128 people. Then I’ll combine these drawings into thirty-two composite-of-composite drawings. And I’ll just keep going down and down, compositing the composites: sixteen, eight, four, two, until I get to one drawing. You’ll be able to trace the lineage through the tree of portraits.

Who submitted the photos?

The majority are people I don’t know. Many of them are best friends. I got couples, dating or married, and, despite my public caveat that I’m not doing the “predict your baby” thing, people who wanted to know what their kid would look like. Some are gay partners who couldn’t have a child. I got one entry from a father and son.

How long will it take to finish?

I started in 2007, and so far I’ve done forty-two drawings. If I were able to work on this full-time, I could finish it in three months. But it’s taking a long time, and that’s become another aspect of the project. Relationships are changing. Some of the participants who were dating have broken up. Eventually I will have to send the composite to their ex.

What is your technique?

I don’t have any specific repeatable technique. I’m mostly mixing and matching features, but sometimes I do a bit of averaging. I am trying to come up with a face that looks like both people but also looks like a new third person. If I use the eyes and the hair from the same person, it ends up looking too much like that person. One thing that I’ve noticed is how much people already look like their friends. I sit down to draw the picture and I’m like, You two already look identical. People must just be attracted to people who look like themselves.

Do you think of the composite faces you’ve drawn as your friends?

I wouldn’t call them my friends. I wouldn’t call them my children. Maybe something closer to my creation. They’re a weird hybrid of my own sensibilities and the faces of strangers.

Has the project changed you at all?

It has changed the way that I look at faces. I’ll see someone after a few years, and I will suddenly see all these details about their face that I never noticed. That’s kind of weird, and it changes the way I interact with people. I have to make sure it doesn’t distance me.

What’s the strangest submission you’ve gotten?

There was one—only one—interspecies submission to BFF. It was a guy and his Chihuahua, who was named Baron Westchester von Tumbleton. I hadn’t specified that I was limiting this to human friends. He called me on it. So I wrote him and said, “If you have any human friends, you could send them in.” He did end up sending a picture of his girlfriend.

Jascha Hoffman is a songwriter and journalist in San Francisco. Shawn Feeney designed the cover of his debut album, A Cure for Sleep.