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Court sketches get art gallery treatment at Moynihan courthouse

Exhibition will showcase 118 works from a trio of artists.

At the Pizza Connection trial on Nov. 25,

At the Pizza Connection trial on Nov. 25, 1985, Judge Pierre Leval, with a case of laryngitis, had to hold up signs indicating his rulings. Here he holds up a a response to an objection: "Overruled." Photo Credit: Aggie Kenny

A federal courthouse in lower Manhattan will become the city's newest art gallery this week, with an expansive exhibition of courtroom art.

Starting Thursday, "History Through Art — An Exhibition of 35 Years of Courtroom Art," will feature 118 images from three longtime courtroom artists, displayed in the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse at 500 Pearl St.

Federal courts largely remain the last bastion of justice that prohibit photography and video coverage of trials, making the half-dozen remaining courtroom artists in the metropolitan area the sole visual stewards of federal court proceedings.

Elizabeth Williams is among the court artists featured in the exhibition. She originally trained as a fashion illustrator during the 1980s in Los Angeles. When she found it difficult to survive in the Hollywood art scene, a teacher suggested she look into courtroom illustration.

“That’s when the television news business was burgeoning,” Williams recalled, noting she was the first artist to sketch for a business cable startup, CNBC. “The television business is an image-driven media and they needed images of trials to tell their story."

Jane Rosenberg, whose art will also be on display, started out practicing at night court in Manhattan Criminal Court.

"My first arraignment was the Craig Crimmins murder trial," said Rosenberg, referring to the stagehand who murdered a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera in a 1980 case which came to be known as the "Murder at the Met” and soon galvanized the city’s attention.

At the beginning of Crimmins's arraignment, a court officer brought Rosenberg into the jury box, where she joined two other artists.  

“When I was done, I called a new startup, CNN, and they said they had someone there. So I called Channel 4 and they said, ‘come in, let’s see what you’ve got.’

“They used it. I went home and watched it on my little black-and-white TV," she continued. "I called my parents and said, ‘I’m on TV!’”

Court art dates back many centuries. A 1976 Syracuse University exhibition suggests the earliest known example of courtroom illustration dates back to 1586 when Mary, Queen of Scots, was tried for plotting the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I.

Early examples of American court art depict the 1865 trial of conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in 1868.

In the 1960s, as news began filling a bigger portion of the television day, more content was needed and crime stories were always in vogue.

Longtime artists have said that the greatest demand for court illustrations was between 1964 and 1994. For example, when General William Westmoreland sued CBS for libel in 1982, 17 court artists filled the federal courtroom to sketch the proceedings.

“There was this great wealth of courtroom artists and drawings,” Williams said. “The television news business was the unwitting patron of courtroom art.”

Aggie Kenny, whose artwork will also be on display, sketched her first trial in 1970 when Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio stood trial for extortion. She also sketched the 1988 Washington, D.C. trial of Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair.

“I think an artist has an advantage to really look at someone and depict accurately what’s happening in that moment. We are not in competition with photographers but I think we have an ability to focus on individual moments,” Kenny said.

Colleen McMahon, the chief U.S. district judge for the southern district of New York, has a personal connection to court artistry.

“My very first court art was done by my daughter when she was 12 years old and visited me in state court,” McMahon said.

“The court artists are very professional,” she continued. “They’re very unobtrusive and they do lovely work."

In addition to the usual lineup of criminals, terrorists, lawsuits and the occasional Statue of Liberty climber, the list of those who have appeared in federal court in Manhattan could just as easily be found on the society, entertainment or gossip pages: John Gotti Jr., Congressman Anthony Weiner, hotel “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley, Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, household doyenne Martha Stewart, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and most recently, Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.

“I think this particular exhibit, which has been beautifully curated, is a real celebration of this court,” McMahon said. “One of the things I’m very happy about is that no effort was made to limit it to the 10 trials you would most likely remember from the last 20, 50, 80 years. This is going to be the definitive compendium of the bench of this court at work in the setting where we do our job.”

The exhibition is free and open to the public during court hours. Viewers will have the chance to totally immerse themselves in the art because all phones and other electronics must be checked at the door.

If you go

"History Through Art — An Exhibition of 35 Years of Courtroom Art" is at Moynihan U.S. Courthouse, 500 Pearl St., lobby Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., FREE

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