One of Summer Farrar's first assignments as a student at the Kansas City Art Institute was to draw the same pile of sticks every day for a few weeks.
The task, she says, turned out to be revelatory.
"What it demonstrated was that you have to look at something over and over again until you see it differently," she told Gina Kaufmann on KCUR's Central Standard.
Farrar never could have guessed then just how useful that lesson would turn out to be in a career that has taken a striking professional turn.
Farrar, who until 2013 was a project manager at the nonprofit Grand Arts, will soon begin a whole new line of work: reviewing dozens of old case files for the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP). It's part of a national effort to find errors in the use of a procedure known as microscopic hair analysis.
"One of the things we're examining is what analysts can and cannot do with hair analysis," she says.
Microscopic hair analysis is the process of comparing hair found at a crime scene with hair collected somewhere else. Up until 2000, the FBI used to identify suspects as "matches" to hair samples, which is something that researchers now say cannot definitively be done. Investigators can only rule out suspects by hair analysis.
Farrar will be helping to coordinate the review of cases — many, decades old —that may have been impacted by this type of faulty analysis. It may seem like an unnatural shift, but Farrar insists her arts training actually makes her uniquely qualified to help examine the past mistakes of forensic investigators.
"Art is really personal and subjective, and I've always worked to understand my reality better," she says. "We demand as a society that forensic scientists be very objective and rigorous and we don't think they should make mistakes. But to acknowledge that they are human and have them address potential bias and mistakes — that is honest and, frankly, can be a relief."
Officials with the Midwest Innocence Project agree, and say that outlook is why they hired Farrar. While Farrar will not do any forensic investigation herself, she will be tasked with coordinating between staffers, attorneys and local law enforcement to select and review cases.
"She understands cognitive bias issues and how these effect forensic science. She is developing protocols to see how faulty analysis could impact the results of other tests," says Tricia Bushnell, the legal director for the Midwest Innocence Project.
Essentially, Farrar looks at this new work as another act of creation, like the projects she used to manage at Grand Arts and her assignments at KCAI.
"There is creative problem solving here, something that happens in all creative endeavors. It can feel like art, but the stakes are very different," she says.
Farrar learned just how different the stakes were quickly after she began doing volunteer ride-alongs with Kansas City Police. She had seen news reports about crime but felt she did not understand the problems associated with it. Curiosity led her to begin shadowing investigators at crime scenes.
"What started as a curiosity got very deep, very quickly," Farrar says. "The pace of police work is very different from what I was used to. It's a lot of boredom punctuated by really intense moments, emergency situations. That was very humbling and informative."
The ride-alongs led Farrar to begin volunteering at the city's crime lab. There, she helped with administrative tasks — managing case files, organizing paper work, setting up experiments. She did this for three years before being hired full-time as a case manager who worked with the lab technicians, investigators and attorneys. "We really benefited from this. It was so valuable having a single point of contact," says Linda Netzel, director of the Kansas City crime lab. That experience, coupled with her art background, seems to have given Farrar an eye for detail and precision.
"It's very important to look at these files in a case-by-case basis. There is a lot of nuance to each case."
And her experiences on ride-alongs impressed upon her the importance of the work.
"Those scenes were intense. You knew stepping behind crime tape that it was a very important moment — the people outside the crime tape are in pain and angry, and the people on the inside of the tape are trying to figure things out."
Farrar can still sound like an artist, trying to make sense of her world. But her new job, she admits, gives her thrills creating art never could.
"Proving someone's innocence trumps anything that I've ever done in the studio," she says.