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Marilyn Church was sitting in court one day when she noticed that the notorious mobster John Gotti was staring her down. Earlier, the writer Gay Talese had told her that Gotti, who was on trial for murder and racketeering, made it a point to know the identity of everyone who attended his trial. Now the Teflon Don appeared fixated on Church, who was in the courtroom nearly every day. As he stared, Gotti began clutching at his throat. What could it mean? Was it a threat? A warning? Some sort of secret death sign of the Cosa Nostra? After a few nervous moments, Church figured it out: “He was telling me not to draw his neck so fat,” recalls Church. “Mobsters are the most vain of all.” So it goes in the life of a courtroom sketch artist. For more than three decades, Church has been on hand to capture the trials and profiles of some of America’s most notorious killers. Recently, some of her best work was collected in The Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials, co-authored with veteran reporter Lou Young and published by Quirk Books. In connection with the book, an exhibition of Church’s sketches was mounted at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in midtown Manhattan. I caught up with her there earlier this month to talk about her 30-year courtroom career, the role of the sketch artist in the digital age, and, yes, the perils of depicting John Gotti’s wattle. To walk around Church’s exhibit was to visit a veritable rogues gallery of American criminals. Against one wall was David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, whose random nocturnal murders terrorized New York City in 1977. Leaning up against another wall was Robert Chambers, the so-called preppie murderer, a J. Crewed killer who strangled a girl to death in Central Park during a bout of what he termed “rough sex.” Nearby was John Hinckley Jr., would-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan, and next to him, in a bulletproof vest and clutching a copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, was Mark David Chapman, who gunned down music legend John Lennon. No one sets out in life to be a sketch artist, and that was certainly the case with Church. After leaving the Pratt Institute in Manhattan with a degree in fine art and doing graduate work at Indiana University, Church tried to land a teaching job that would allow her time to paint. Having no luck, she worked as an illustrator for fashion magazines in New York until a lawyer friend suggested she try her hand as a courtroom sketch artist. Then, as now, New York and federal courts didn’t allow cameras in the courtroom. Nevertheless, newspapers, magazines, and, in particular, television news needed visuals to complete their coverage of major trials. Church wasn’t sure about the idea. To begin, she wasn’t much of a television watcher, so she didn’t have any idea what kinds of sketches were used. Beyond that, she saw herself more as a painter and illustrator than a sketch artist. Still, she recalled that growing up in the 1950s, she had much admired the dramatic scenes depicted in the black-and-white courtroom illustrations in Life magazine. So one day in 1974, she found herself in a crowded courtroom in Queens doing some test sketches of a trial that was getting a lot of coverage. She was hooked. After showing her work to a local television station, she got her first assignment a week later. Compared with most kinds of drawing and illustrating, courtroom sketch work presents some unique challenges. First, the working conditions are often lousy. The light is usually wrong — either a dim sepia tone from overhead fluorescent bulbs or cascading in from the wrong angle, washing out the features of the subjects. Seating is cramped and usually on a first-come, first-served basis, with the artists crowded together in a long row. But the biggest obstacle is time. It’s one thing to capture the famous likeness of a celebrity killer (or just plain celebrity) under ideal circumstances. It’s another to do it with an unhelpful subject and a rabid reporter on deadline nipping at your heels. Then, a key dramatic turn in a trial late in the day can force you to discard all your work and do a hasty rendition of a fleeting moment. Recalling how much of her substandard work ended up on the airwaves, Church lowers her head to her hands and lets out a soft, low moan. Almost all of Church’s sketches are done on a 19- by 25-inch foam-core board custom-cut to fit paper of the same size. Church draws with a set of colored pencils and water-soluble crayons made by Caran D’Ache of Switzerland. Water solubility is key, as multiple corrections and touch-ups are typically done over the course of a day. In court, Church keeps a small jar of water next to her and dips a piece of paper towel in it when she needs to rub out and start again. She also brings binoculars to court for close-up work sometimes, but not as often as some of the other artists, many of whom wear a pair clipped to their glasses, glancing underneath them to draw. “I usually do scenes, not heads,” she says. “I don’t like that studied, portrait look.” During the past 30-plus years, Church has had a chance to capture some riveting scenes. Looking through the trials in the book is like taking a walking tour of recent American legal history. Here is the 1974 trial of former Attorney General John Mitchell, convicted on perjury charges in the Watergate scandal. A few pages on is the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, who lingered in a coma for months as her parents and her doctors battled over the novel idea that a person has a right to die. A few years later, Church was there as America learned that it was possible for doctors to create a test-tube baby, and for the hospital to get sued for destroying it after administrators learned of the unauthorized experiment. Church also captured the trial of members of the Black Liberation Army, who tried to finance a vision of a utopian black republic by heisting millions from a Brink’s armored truck, and the case of then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who sued Time magazine for $50 million for saying he had orchestrated the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in a refugee camp during Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War (the jury found the charge false but not libelous under American law). MURDER, SHE DREW But undoubtedly the most entertaining portraits come from the book’s rich trove of famous murder trials. Church brings the inherent drama of trial to life as jurors gape and cover their mouths in horror when confronting pictures of the victim, or when the accused breaks on the stand or explodes in fury. Drawing a killer, Church concedes, is tricky. Many of the would-be murderers she drew shared common qualities. Hinckley and Chapman, for example, had qualities of blankness that made them difficult for Church to capture. By contrast, says Church, Berkowitz, Chambers, and Gotti all radiated a palpable sense of evil. That raises the question of whether Church’s feelings ever influence how she depicts someone in court. “You have to get past your personal repugnance,” she says, but then allows that she does have lingering regrets about one case. In April 1989, Paula Harris, a 28-year-old investment banker out for an evening jog, was brutally beaten, raped, and left for dead near the north end of Central Park. Police arrested five teens who were allegedly part of a gang that had attacked several people in the park that day. The case introduced the concept of “wilding” into the American lexicon. New Yorkers, in the midst of a crime wave, howled for justice (Donald Trump memorably took out full-page ads in several newspapers calling for the death penalty). All five teens were convicted on charges relating to the attack, largely on the strength of confessions that some in the group had made to police after marathon interrogations. During the trials, Church says, the defendants’ relatives often approached her to try to persuade her to make the teens look more sympathetic. Looking at the drawings now, Church sees their point. “The drawings look dark and belligerent. They were children.” But at the time, Church recalls, the teens did seem dark and belligerent. One drawing from the trial shows spectators holding up a sign in court after the guilty verdict was read, saying “We Know Where You Live.” In 2002, long after the last of the five teenagers got out of jail, a serial rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and a DNA sample from him matched evidence from the crime scene. AN AMERICAN TRADITION Louis Meisel, co-owner of the gallery that hosted Church’s exhibit, says her sketches fall clearly in the tradition of American realism. Meisel has long collected and written about the work of American illustrators from the 1930s and 1940s who did classic pinup girls and illustrations for pulp magazines. To date, Meisel says, no collectors have focused on courtroom sketching. “I believe we are the first ones to show this work in a fine art gallery.” Meisel says Church’s work is notable because of its dynamism and emotional quality. “You can’t possibly get technical perfection, but you get feelings and impressions that a camera won’t get.” This would seem to put courtroom sketch work more in the camp of impressionism than realism, and many of Church’s drawings carry a faint resemblance to the spare studies and impromptu sketches the impressionists often made for their work, drawings that reflected more the emotional life of the artist than the subject. Even the way Church describes her work — allowing the rhythms and feelings of the court to soak in over the course of a day’s worth of sketching — seems less concerned with representation than with perception. The ephemeral nature of Church’s art extends to its preservation. One reason courtroom sketch work may not have been exhibited until now is that it often doesn’t survive. Many times over the years, Church has had to badger producers and editors to get her sketches back before they were tossed out. Much to Church’s surprise, the book, which she had been trying to get someone interested in for 15 years, has been a modest hit for Quirk, and the opening of her show has generated offers for follow-up exhibits. Despite the new recognition and the increased attention, Church is unsure how much longer she’ll keep going to court. “The business is really changing,” she says. “A lot of work is assigned on spec that used to be done on contract. The bottom has really dropped out.” It’s also an open question how much longer the world will need courtroom sketch artists. Already, many states are opening the courthouse doors to cameras, and Congress is actively considering doing the same in federal courts. Could courtroom sketch artists be going the way of the blacksmith? Church concedes it’s possible but thinks photography would have a hard time capturing the drama and tension that the sketch artist can find in the static setting of the courtroom. “Besides,” she adds, leafing through a thick stack of her sketches, “these are so beautiful to look at.”
Douglas McCollam is a Washington-based writer currently working on a book about the Palmer Raids of the 1920s.

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