May 03, 2006
Racing against deadline, trying to capture the spirit and substance of major trials, courtroom artists must have fast minds as well as nimble hands. Though they work in concert with reporters, they often have to make sudden decisions about perspective and principals. And, of course, there's the balancing act, as Marilyn Church describes it — keeping materials on your lap, though you're "jammed in on both sides by other artists and reporters." Church, the first courtroom artist to be hired by The New York Times (for the Mitchell-Stans Watergate trial in 1974), not only rose to media requirements but executed beautifully composed drawings (using water-soluble crayons and colored pencils), a number of which have been sold as separate works of art.
Now, many of her courtroom sketches have been collected in a fascinating book done with Lou Young, an award-winning reporter with WCBS-TV. He supplies brief text on the trials covered here while Church provides insider take on capturing the essence of "strangers in their most painful and intimate moments." Together, Church and Young have produced a good-looking and informative cultural and judicial history of the last three decades of the 20th Century. Given the mood of the country today, the 1994 World Trade Center and Landmarks trial in particular makes for chilling reading.
The roster of personalities in The Art of Justice includes, among others, Karen Ann Quinlan, Ariel Sharon, General Westmoreland, Jean Harris, Bernhard Goetz, Mary Beth Whitehead, John Gotti (he worried how Church would do his neck and chin), Amy Fisher, Woody Allen, O.J. Simpson (two composite sketches were commissioned by The Ladies' Home Journal), Sean Puffy Combs (he invited her to his annual East Hampton bash), Martha Stewart (disdainful, with her "tightly set mouth"), not to mention a host of defendants and plaintiffs profiled in a Celebrity Gallery at the end of the book, among them Truman Capote, Yoko Ono, Leona Helmsly, Alger Hiss, Abbie Hoffman, Mick Jagger, Don King, Tupac Shakur, Brooke Shields, The Mayflower Madame, Jackie O, Claus Von Bulow, and more. Sometimes two big trials were going on in the same courthouse, and Church found herself running up and down stairs, "adrenaline pumping."
Though Court TV and the Internet provide saturation coverage these days, Church is right to suggest that "sometimes a good drawing can tell more than a photograph — a photograph freezes a fraction of a second, while a drawing can transcend time entirely." Drawings also prove helpful when evidence photographs, such as those in The Central Park Jogger, are considered "too graphic for television." Also, editors can request composite drawings, pictures that compress players and action in order to emphasize the odd or significant, though Church's putting front and center the footwear Marla Maples stalker Chuck Jones collected was her own idea (he was representing himself, she notes, perhaps to get to fondle those shoes all over again). The composites make especially fine pictures and allow Church to broaden her canvas to take in lawyers, family members, and juries (not to mention judges).
Ironically, her personal comments serve to enhance the sense of fairness. As she was drawing David Berkowitz (The Son of Sam), for example, she found his eyes fastened on her and realized that she looked like "just the type of woman he picked to attack." Shortly after staring at her, he broke free of officers and went berserk — a one-minute scene she got down stunningly. As for Robert Chambers, the sangfroid Preppie murderer, he disturbed even her dreams. She also caught with deft lines Jean Harris's crumpled form, John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman's "lucid but crazed eyes," Norman Mailer's "disbelief and shock" at his murderous protégé Abbott. Church put herself in it this picture and got Mailer to sign the drawing.
Church, who studied at Pratt Institute and did graduate work at Indiana University, trained as a fine artist but started working in fashion. When she heard about courtroom art, she resourcefully made the rounds of TV stations and was hired by WABC-TV to produce four drawings in three hours — a wide angle of the courtroom, a close up of the defendant, a jury shot and audience reaction. The assignment introduced her to the challenges of courtroom art —poor lighting, subjects who sit far away (she used binoculars) and, on rare occasions, she confesses, a likeness that eluded her — Mike Wallace, for one. Still, while justice can miscarry, Church's art here never does.
The artist, who has a home in East Hampton, will be at East End Books on Saturday from 5-7 p.m. Later on in the month her work will be on exhibit at the Bernaducci-Meisel Gallery in the city.
The Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials. By courtroom artist Marilyn Church and WCBS-TV reporter Lou Young. Quirk Books, 160 pp., index. $29.95 (paper).