New York City artist captures courtroom history in new book

Martha Stewart at her 2004 trial. Credit: Elizabeth Williams
Martha Stewart at her 2004 trial.
Credit: Elizabeth Williams

A few quick clicks through the 24-hour news cycle will likely turn up any number of live shots taken inside a courtroom.

From the infamous 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson to the most recent media circus around George Zimmerman’s court appearances, cameras are more or less expected to chronicle many high-profile courtroom dramas.

That wasn’t always the case. In fact, it still isn’t in many courthouses across the country. Cameras only became legal in some courtrooms in the mid-1980s, and are still banned in many court proceedings.

That’s where courtroom artists come in. For centuries, eager onlookers have turned to men and women who take pen and pastel to paper as the only way to peek inside some of the most infamous court hearings.

After more than 30 years in the industry, New Yorker Elizabeth Williams found unconventional success by capturing moments in New York courthouse history, including lifestyle magnate Martha Stewart’s 2004 conviction and infamous financier Bernie Madoff’s eventual downfall.

Metro sat down with Williams, who recently collected some of her and four of her peers’ work over the years in a new book, “The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art.”

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad in 2010. Credit: Elizabeth Williams
Attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad in 2010.
Credit: Elizabeth Williams

Metro: What goes through your mind when you pick a scene to put on paper?
Elizabeth Williams: You can have a lot of time to do something or no time to something. You have to be prepared for anything. I can’t come back to my boss and say, “I’m sorry I didn’t get it.” You start to develop a news sense.

That doesn’t sound to different from what photojournalists go through.
Absolutely. If I work with an editor, they ask, “Did you get the shot?” “Did you get the face?” Sometimes you’re not even looking at the paper — you look more out than you do out because you have to study the scene. We can’t do it as quickly as a photographer, but that’s what we have to do.

But some of these look like they take quite a bit of time.
You don’t whip them out in ten minutes. You need at least a half hour to do a decent drawing, but if the deadline is in 10 minutes, it’s done in 10 minutes.

What you do is an art form, but it’s also a deadline-driven career. How do you balance the two?
The first line of the book: “Inside the very best court artists are fine artists waiting to get out.” But the crushing deadlines… That’s the truth of it. You want those two things to meet — you want artistry and you want journalism. That doesn’t always happen.

Can you name a moment when it didn’t happen for you?
I’m not so crazy about that Madoff piece. I would have liked to have more time on that thing. It’s historically significant, but I was on auto-pilot. It’s a moment in time.

Is it fair to call it a dying art?
Oh, yeah.

So where do you see this particular art form heading in the next few years?
We’ll see. When they put cameras in federal courts, that’s pretty much it. I mean, maybe there’ll be a trial here or there, but the news business has changed so much that courts are covered very differently. There’s just a handful of us left now. Back in the day there used to be 14, 15 artists in New York. Yeah, it’s on it’s way out.

Do you remember your first gig in a courtroom?
Oh yes. I was 22, maybe 23 at the San Bernardino courthouse. The defendant was a child molester, and they finish his sentencing. As he walks by me, he turns and says, “Do a good job, honey.”

Mick Jagger defending himself from plagiarism accusations in 1988. Credit: Elizabeth Williams
Mick Jagger defending himself from plagiarism accusations.
Credit: Elizabeth Williams

Having worked some big cases between California and New York, have you noticed any quirks between the two coasts?
California artists, I’ve noticed, have different techniques. They’re light and airy. In New York, they like the deeper, richer, heavier tones and lines.

Given that each image is a moment in time, what drove you to collect these different scenes in one book?
I got to understand that this history was being lost and forgotten. People’s artwork would languish in their garages — there’s some that goes to the Library of Congress, but a lot of it gets tossed aside. People should really see these. They’re an important part of our history.

We hear a lot about overall crime dropping in New York City over the last two decades. Has that been at all reflected in the work you’re able to get since the 1990s?
I never even thought about that, mostly because I do a lot of insider trading cases. I’ve made so much money on insider trading, you have no idea.

Buy the book

The Illustrated Courtroom Credit: CUNY Journalism Press
The Illustrated Courtroom
Credit: CUNY Journalism Press
“The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art” is available for pre-order through the CUNY Journalism Press in paperback and e-book varieties.

Select pieces from the book are on also display and for sale at the World Trade Art Gallery at 74 Trinity Place through Friday, May 2.

Follow Chester Jesus Soria on Twitter @chestersoria


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