My most famous sketch of Ghislaine Maxwell was actually from a preliminary hearing a few weeks before her trial started.
I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all that she was drawing me. It was a dream come true when she turned and looked at me directly.
When it went viral within the first few days of the trial, I started getting all these calls. I was thinking: “What’s going on? That was a two-week old sketch.” I don’t do social media.
completely losing my mind over this courtroom sketch of ghislaine maxwell staring straight at the artist and drawing them right back pic.twitter.com/La8sh4c9Pq— Jello Bea Arthur (@DJWillMartin) December 2, 2021
Ghislaine was great to sketch, I’ve never seen a defendant so kissy and huggy with her lawyers. She always looked really happy to be out of that jail cell. She did a lot more than most defendants who just plop in a chair and look straight ahead.
We developed a kind of rapport where she would raise her eyebrows or nod her head at me. She even said hello to me once during a pre-trial hearing. “Long day isn’t it?” she said.
It’s much harder to sketch someone wearing a mask, but thankfully Ghislaine had very expressive eyes. Because that’s all I’ve got, eyes and hair. We basically have a half face to work with during the Covid era. People might think it’s easier, but it’s not.
The only time I noticed some tension in her face was when she was deciding whether to testify or not.
When the guilty verdicts came back, I thought she would be very emotional. I was expecting a big reaction and that the family would be crying in the front row. I was sure it would be really exciting, but there was nothing.
Her sisters Isabel and Christine also sketched in the courtroom. Christine was sitting in the front row, drawing defence attorney Bobbi Sternheim as she stood in the well. I got up and stood behind her and had a look, she was drawing very tiny, kind of hiding it, but it did look like Bobbi a little. I guess the family likes to sketch.
Towards the end of the Maxwell trial, the Omicron variant became a big concern. They started making us wear these N95 masks that I couldn’t properly breathe in. The rules must have changed as Ghislaine was no longer able to hug her lawyers. It all just got so scary.
During the Maxwell trial I would get up at 4am everyday so I could arrive at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan before it opens, and be ready to draw as soon as anything happens.
At 4am I can’t think, so I have to have everything ready to go out the door.
I bring prescription binoculars that I can wear on my head, a tripod, a thermos of coffee, a backpack with lunch, and a cushion to sit on on those hard bunches.
I sketch in pastels, the same medium I have used for 40 years, on Canson paper.
I bring latex finger cots – a cap that covers the end of my finger – because my skin gets so dried out and cracked and filthy with dust from digging into my pastel box. Sometimes my fingers bleed, so I have to protect them as best I can. That’s the hardest part. Everyday they get black and filthy.
It takes a day or two of not being in court and soaking them for my hands to come back to normal.
It’s not that they ache, it’s that they get so dried out. I have to wash them over and over in the courthouse with whatever harsh soap they have in the court bathroom. I can’t be too concerned about my nails. They’d be wrecked in a day.
When I come home I have to sharpen my pencils, take out my old sketches, put in fresh paper, clean my pastels, eat some food quickly and get ready for the next day. It’s a grind every day, it’s brutal.
When I begin a sketch, I start with the layout of the courtroom, I have to have a plan. I’m always looking for a gesture, someone pointing or leaning, a moment of interest.
I much prefer to be inside the courtroom rather than sketching from a blurry screen in an overflow room like I did during the R Kelly trial.
Before that I did the Derek Chauvin trial from a computer monitor which was rough. I had to watch George Floyd die over and over again, from every angle, as the life was snuffed out of him. That was kind of gut-wrenching to draw. I had to really zoom in on that, I had to look at his face. It was brutal. I felt like I had a pit in my stomach, every day.
I have to listen to some pretty awful stuff, and it has been hard at times. I remember years ago I started crying, but tears are not good for pastel so I have to stay neutral. It does get hard.
During the El Chapo trial, his wife sat behind me and he blew kisses to her all the time. But he didn’t connect with me at all.
When I drew former New York mob boss John Gotti, he asked to have his double chin removed. He made a little slicing motion towards his chin in the court, almost grabbing his neck. I knew what it meant.
Harvey Weinstein asked for more hair.
Another grifter woman who killed her landlord said to me “don’t make me look like a monster”.
I always knew I wanted to make a living from art, but I struggled for many years. I did a bachelor’s degree in fine art at the State University of New York at Buffalo. After that I tried doing portraits, I copied Rembrandts and Vermeers on the sidewalk with a hat out. I did whatever I could.
Then I saw a lecture from another court artist at the Society of Illustrators in 1980. I wasn’t sure if I would be good enough, but I came home and looked in the mirror and said to myself: “I’m going to do this. I’m just going after it.”
I started out sketching night court at the Manhattan Criminal Court in downtown New York, mostly prostitutes being arraigned. I asked the court officers “where do the sketch artists sit and what materials do they bring” and he said “come next week I’ll let you sit in the jury box with the other artists”.
I went home and called this new start up company called CNN. They already had a court artist so I called NBC. I took my portfolio in, and they shot it on film right then and there.
I came home that night and watched it on my little black and white TV and called my parents to say “I’m on TV.” I was very excited.
In those days there was always a camera person waiting outside the court for the sketch. I had to rush out of the courthouse and tape it up to the side of a truck. They’d take a copy and a motorcycle courier would rush it back to the newsroom. Later on, they’d send a satellite truck to send it back to the newsroom. Now I take a digital photograph of my sketches and send them by email.
I have had to learn a lot of new tricks of the trade.
I live with my husband near Columbia University in New York City. We met in Brooklyn federal court, he’s a criminal defence attorney.
I love what I do. I also paint. There’s no stress in that. That’s what I guess I’ll do when I finish this. I’m way past retirement age, but I don’t think I’m going to stop being a court artist unless they stop using me.
I used to peel crayons for hours in the crib, and now I’m peeling chalk for hours in the courtroom.
Maybe playing with crayons keeps you young.
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