Courtroom illustrator Marilyn Church has spent four decades documenting the most highly publicised trials of the century. From Bernie Madoff to OJ Simpson, Church has captured the likeness of men and women whose lives hang in the balance. As one of the many players whose work is in pursuit of justice, she shares her experience working with the unknowable nature of truth and the abstract mystery of the human mind
Society wants to believe it can identify evil people, or bad or harmful people, but it’s not practical. There are no stereotypes.
What makes a courtroom illustrator different from any other illustrator?
Well, number one, you have to make the deadlines. Artists care so much about the quality of their work and doing a perfect job, but that will not make it. Number one, you got to make air, and sometimes you only have 20 minutes to do a drawing and the cameras are waiting outside. It’s very competitive, other artists will try to be faster at it than you. The other thing is, you have to be very good at a likeness. So incredible speed, likeness and just the fortitude to work under pressure. People are not posing for you. People are turning away, you get backs of heads and you get court officers suddenly blocking the view, surrounding a defendant who is dangerous. There’s all that going on.
Given the time pressure, does drawing from memory become an asset?
Yes. You take a quick look, and that may be the last time you see the person. After that, there could be a disruption in the courtroom and he could be taken back to the jail cell, but you still have to do the drawing. So, you do develop a photographic memory. You have to be concise and summarise what makes each person very different. You know, pick out those qualities right away that are gonna say: this person.
It all happens in seconds. It’s frozen in your memory and you just draw it as fast as you can.
David Berkowitz, “Son of Sam”
“Son of Sam”
When I was drawing him, his eyes were on me. Because it was in a hospital, I was sitting so close to him, much closer than I’ve ever sat to any defendant, and it wasn’t in an ordinary courtroom. It was an insanity hearing, so there were psychiatrists testifying about his sanity. I was sitting so close, and there was something almost spiritual in his blue eyes that just sort of captivated me. I was forgetting this was a killer looking at me. Suddenly, as I’m staring at him, I realise he’s staring back at me and that I, at the time, resembled his victims. I had long dark hair, and all his victims looked like that.
My fingers just froze, but I had mastered drawing under pressure and kept drawing. You know, it was more important to get that drawing than to feel the fear. It all happens in seconds. You know, when someone has an outburst, court officers surround him. It’s frozen in your memory and you just draw it as fast as you can because everyone’s waiting outside for this picture. That’s what makes it, you know it’s interesting because really, that makes a better drawing in a way because it’s filled with emotion and speed, it’s very fresh.
I still to this day, don’t know where the truth lies in that trial.
What is it like when you have celebrities at a trial?
Well it’s particularly hard because everybody knows exactly what they look like. Day after day, the trial went on for three weeks, and I had to draw them as best I could. There were no passionate scenes like there were with David Berkowitz, but it was very compelling listening to Mia Farrow speak about wanting to protect her children. I still to this day, don’t know where the truth lies in that trial. I tend to favour Mia, as the judge did too. But Woody Allen, he’s an icon of mine, so it was very hard to picture that he would do anything like that. So it’s a mystery to this day. But it was thrilling to be there everyday drawing him. You know all the things I love about Woody Allen, his brilliant mind and quick wit were nowhere to be seen at this trial. He was sitting like he was in a straitjacket with no expression pretty much.
What does it feel like being in the courtroom of several very high trials?
It feels great. The adrenaline’s always running, and you’re listening to the best legal minds and you’re drawing, making art. You’re sitting in a very small space as well, balancing art supplies. Most of the time you cannot see what you want to be seeing. I’ve seen artists come in for a day or two and say, ‘how do you do this?’, and never show up again. But for me, it’s just absolutely thrilling.
Moment to moment you have to be alert, always.
Do you feel there is an art to presenting the truth?
I definitely feel that, I think that it’s so important. I think the drawings that are successful are aware that it’s an art. It’s so important to you take into account the composition, the focus, the colour, the movement, moving the eyes with the picture – all of that. All good art has an awareness of the design of a page, no matter how quick you are doing it. It’s operating intuitively while you’re dealing with all the other things that I’ve already described, and that’s an art I think
How do you choose the moments that you decide to depict?
Moment by moment changes. You may be sketching in the judge and the lawyer, waiting for the most important witness to turn up because the reporter doesn’t care about anything else, and suddenly, the defendant jumps out of his chair and starts screaming. So you have to know that is the picture of the day, not the witness you’re waiting for. Moment to moment you have to be alert, always. That’s the other thing about drawing. You’re drawing and looking, and yet always looking around as well for what’s coming next.
What makes a person step out of a middle-upper class life to become a criminal?
What was has been your most memorable trial to date?
Going way back, there was the Jean Harris trial. She was a very prim headmistress of a famous girls’ school in Maryland, and she was involved in an affair with a diet doctor in upstate New York. He got interested in another woman, and she shot him because she was being discarded. It was so fascinating to see somebody from this very upper class world do that, how did that happen? How did she step out of that world into the world of crime? And she was just the image of education, of manners, just really very proper. She was convicted and spent 13 years in prison, which is also so outlandish to realise that that was her fate. She eventually became a proponent of women in prison and helped to educate and help them in so many ways. She became a model prisoner.
How did this case come to life for you?
What makes a person step out of middle-upper class life and become a criminal. I find that endlessly fascinating. They made a TV movie about it, where Ellen Burstyn played Jean Harris and they hired me to go to Hollywood and do drawings of Ellen Burstyn as Jean Harris. Between scenes, these drawings would come up. They used me as a visual consultant about how she dressed, and so the whole thing was very involved and thrilling.
Central Park Jogger Trial
How do you protect yourself from getting affected by the more extreme crimes you have witnessed?
You know, my father was a surgeon. I often think of it; ‘how does a doctor do surgery?’. I think it’s the same. You develop a skill to shut out the bloody themes from your mind. Although I have to say, there are certain cases that have affected me for years afterwards. There are certain times when the similarities are so close to my own life. For instance, I have a son the same age as one of the defendants, a prep school kid who killed this young girl, claiming she was forcing him into rough sex in Central Park. It could’ve been an accident, I mean I don’t know what happened. But you know, my son was the same age he was. And they show all these photos of the girl being mutilated, oh it just.. You know it was a school in the same neighbourhood my son was going to a school at. He could have known the kids. Things like that stay in your mind.
Marilyn Church is an artist whose art has straddled two very different worlds for over four decades. She moves easily between courtroom art and fine art.
After years of observing and drawing at high profile trials in the tense atmosphere of the courtroom, she realizes that the whole truth is not easily knowable. Her painting is an exploration of those aspects of people that remain hidden, impenetrable and mysterious. These are elusive qualities. Her figures are not specific. They are nearly abstractions. The backgrounds are ambiguous and fluid. Figures and the movement of vibrant colors and shapes change direction and pass beyond their boundaries. Her courtroom illustrations inform her fine art and her deep passion and attachment to both is obvious. She moves easily between sketching Bernie Madoff or John Gotti and painting abstract figures. The Library of Congress has collected more than 4,500 pieces of her work and the Smithsonian has a large number as well.
For her full body of work, visit her site here.
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