BY JEFFERSON SIEGEL | Civilization’s oldest form of artistic expression, sketching, is thriving in 21st-century federal courthouses.
As part of a year-long series of events celebrating the 225th anniversary of the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York, the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, at 40 Foley Square, is hosting an exhibit, “Courtroom Art: Eyewitness for the Public 1972-2011.”
Twenty-one examples of artwork from notable court cases are on display in the courthouse’s main lobby. Among the individuals illustrated are Imelda Marcos, Leona Helmsley, Martha Stewart and Bernard Madoff. Art from the criminal trial against former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, the trial of General William Westmoreland against CBS, and the trial of Ariel Sharon against Time, Inc., as well as several high-profile organized crime and terrorism cases, offer the public a rare glimpse inside the rarefied precincts of federal justice.
Despite advanced technology and a voracious 24-hour news cycle, photography is still prohibited in federal courthouses. Thus, courtroom artists who capture the daily drama of trials do become the eyewitnesses for the public.
Downtown resident Elizabeth Williams, an artist for the Associated Press and other news organizations, drew the “Somali Pirate,” “Pizza Connection” and “42nd Street Bomber” trials, among countless others.
“The art is the harmony to the reporter’s words,” Williams said. “In court they don’t smile for the cameras,” she added.
Williams praised the news media as the true patrons of courtroom art.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, you’ve just added a thousand more words to your story,” she said.
Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska joined several of the artists at a recent reception in the courthouse’s soaring lobby for the exhibit’s opening.
“Through their great talent, courtroom artists animate the range of emotions that are so frequently evoked in the courtroom, and they do so in a far more intense way than a mere photograph could,” Preska said. “Their ability to capture the emotions in such a vivid way makes their drawings much more evocative than a mere photograph.”
Another federal Judge, P. Kevin Castel, reflected on the historical significance of courtroom sketches.
“Think about a drawing of Aaron Burr, who swore his oath of office in the first Federal Court in 1789,” Castel said, recalling America’s third vice president. “What was on Aaron Burr’s face that day? Courtroom art is history.”
Judge Deborah Batts noted, “While the courts are always open to the public, we have more public than capacity. Our courtroom artists provide access to significant and poignant aspects of the trials.”
Jane Rosenberg draws regularly for the New York Daily News and others. She sketched the trials of Leona Helmsley and Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff.
“I love to study human nature,” Rosenberg said, “the facial expressions and gestures of people who tell the truth or lie. Some people try to mask their emotions; others can’t hold them back.”
Christine Cornell was only 21 and on spring break when she accompanied her sister, WCBS Newsradio 88 reporter Irene Cornell, to a trial.
“I can do this,” she thought, and enrolled in fine-art courses at Pratt.
After art school, Cornell went to a Long Island trial and pitched her sketches to CBS News. Soon she would be drawing for CNN and NBC.
“Nothing beats it for the excitement, for observing and being part of the story,” she said.
These historical works by artists Rosenberg, Williams and Cornell, as well as Aggie Kenny and Richard Tomlinson, are on display in the courthouse lobby until May 4. The exhibit is free.