Tennessee Alumnus

There He Blows

There He Blows

Josh Wolcott came to UT to study art. He dreamed of being a sculptor and a teacher. He never dreamed he’d be creating synthetic human bodies to blow up.

But the graduate student’s career took an unexpected turn in April 2005 when an interesting offer came into the art department from the National Forensic Academy, which trains crime-scene investigators. NFA needed a sculptor to create two gel men so they could blow up one in a car and drop the other out of a plane. Wolcott had never made a gel man, but he was ready to learn.

The person behind the gel-man request was best-selling author Patricia Cornwell, who has had a long relationship with NFA. She had an idea for a training exercise involving an airplane crash. She needed a body to blow up with the plane, and she suggested NFA officials create one out of ballistic ordinance gelatin, which behaves like human tissue when exposed to gunshots or explosives.

Wolcott used one of NFA’s articulated dummies–one with moveable joints–to make a cast. He first welded a metal cart to hold the dummy, “Frank,” in a seated position. Half of the dummy was buried in clay, which was allowed to dry. Liquid rubber was poured on the exposed section in multiple coats to create half of a rubber mold of Frank’s body. Each half of the mold took about 24 hours to make.

With the interior rubber mold made and an exterior plaster “mother mold” created to hold its form, Wolcott and the NFA team were ready to mix the gelatin and pour gel man. “When you make Jell-O at home, you put it in the refrigerator,” Wolcott says. “The NFA staff found a walk-in refrigerator to use–in the county morgue.”

Since NFA recruited him, Wolcott has made five gel men–three in the morgue and the last two in UT’s Food Sciences Building. After the first few gel men bounced, Wolcott began experimenting with densities–even adding plaster bones and sheep organs–to make his creations behave more like a real human body.

Last summer, he made a gel man with a plaster skull and spine and a sheep’s brain and eyeballs. It was dropped from a helicopter to teach crime-scene investigators what they’d find if called to the scene of a suicide jumper.

Why would a sculptor want to make a piece of art just to destroy it?

“People ask me all the time, ‘Why do you do this?’ Wolcott says. “It’s a lot like putting on a show,” he says. “We’re throwing somebody out of a helicopter. We’re blowing somebody up in a car seat. In real life, those things are against the rules. You just don’t get to do that.”

Wolcott has a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Carleton College in Minnesota. He chose UT for his graduate work after meeting Jason Brown, a sculpture professor. “When I met him, I thought, Now there’s somebody I want to be influenced by for three years.”

Wolcott said he’s been fortunate to have special projects come his way while at UT. He cast a bronze head of Victor Ashe, former Knoxville mayor, now U.S. ambassador to Poland, and American Amusement Rides Ltd. of Maryville, Tennessee, has commissioned him to make masks for animatronics figures.

“Being a grad student has constantly supplied me with work,” Wolcott says. “I love getting wrapped up in these adventures. Had I gone to a different grad school, I would have missed out.”