For 17 years with the GBI and almost 17 years with the Atlanta Police Department, she crafted faces of suspects using bits and pieces of facial characteristics that victims chose from hundreds of mug shots.
» SEE MORE: Marla Lawson's reconstructions and sketches from the GBI's unidentified remains case files
“Her ability to have victims recall things they didn’t think they could recall is astounding,” said Maj. Myron Logan of the DeKalb County Police Department. “One of the things that makes her so great is you don’t even know what you’re remembering until you see the final product.”
In more recent years, she used unidentifiable remains to mold clay into likenesses that were exact enough that loved ones could recognize the faces of long-lost relatives whose skeletal remains were discarded in woods or buried in unmarked graves.
Lawson has come a long way from the self-described teenage hellion who smoked cigarettes, signed her parents’ names on report cards and once was caught with marijuana in her purse. She claims she made Ds in high school art and the “teachers really hated me.”
All she wanted to do after graduating from the now-gone Walter F. George High School was to be a typist. But first, her mother persuaded her to try drawing caricatures of patrons at Underground Atlanta during its heyday.
Set up in Kenny’s Alley, “I wore low-cut shirts and short skirts and I’d get $20 tips for a $10 drawing,” Lawson said.
But after she left work late one night, she was pulled into a car and held for several hours, enough to convince Lawson to get away from the crime that seemed to surround Underground.
She applied for a clerical job at the Atlanta Police Department, where her father was an officer, and in 1975 took a job in the unit that filed fingerprint cards and other records.
But soon word spread at APD that there was a “girl in central records who could draw.” She began sketching rape suspects and armed robbers. She drew the images described by the dozens of psychics who came to Atlanta in the late 1970s and early ’80s and had visions of the man who was kidnapping and murdering young black kids, which became known as the “missing and murdered” cases. (None of them panned out.)
Soon, word of her skill went out all over the state. For years various police agencies and especially the GBI called upon her.
Eventually Lawson burned out. She was producing about 300 composite drawings a year while keeping up with her filing.
She quit in 1991 and took a job making sandwiches in Sharpsburg, which lasted until the store was robbed. Her sketch of the gunman led to a job as a jailer in Coweta County.
Then Eric Robert Rudolph set off a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park in during the 1996 summer games.
Lawson said officers from several agencies contacted her at the jail. The GBI offered her a job. That is when she produced her most famous sketch, depicting Rudolph by using family photos and then aging him 10 years.
Since Rudolph, the self-taught artist has put faces with some of Georgia’s infamous and not-so-infamous crimes.
“She’s one of the best assets we’ve ever had,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan said. “We considered ourselves blessed that she worked for Georgia law enforcement.”
In her 40s, the once-wild teenager converted to Mormonism. The peace she draws from her religion and “blessings,” a message from God passed through a church leader, guide her, especially when working with unidentified remains.
Lawson would sit quietly and occasionally even speak to the skeletal parts. Then she uses “what comes into my mind” as a guide to recreate their faces.
“You’ve got to listen to the spirit,” Lawson said. “We are very much led by the spirit in what we do.”
That listening has led her to accurately pick green eyes for sculptures, even though most of the population has brown. Or to choose red hair. Or an ethnic look.
Her drawings have been key in sending a man to Death Row and helping rape victims to identify their attackers.
But at 63, the travel from one corner of the state to the other became too much. In her final six months on the job, she drew only occassionally, leaving most of the sketching for her replacement, daughter Kelly Lawson.
Their styles are identical, the only difference being the artist’s name scripted on the neck of the subject, a Marla trademark that will now become Kelly’s.
“I’ve been knowing a long time it’s time to train somebody else,” Lawson said.
Lawson concedes she will be available to help Kelly, 30. Just last week, the GBI’s new sketch artist asked for suggestions for the “maniacal grin” that one witness used to describe one of the two teenagers committing street robberies in East Atlanta.
“I’m going to sit by the computer. She might have to ask me something,” Lawson said.
Besides, Lawson added, “She knows where I live.”