My Courtroom Art

 
Defendant in courtoom art

Courtroom art is not for the faint of heart.

The court room artist sits cheek to cheek with other voyeurs on a hard wood bench trying to capture likenesses and actions of the participants in real life morality plays called trials. There are incredible consequences for the defendants as well as their family and friends who, while absorbed in the proceedings, cannot help but rubberneck your work.
 
It is quiet enough to hear a pin drop while the air in the room actually feels tense with human drama. (A respected national artist who used markers elicited groans from the court staff because of the squeak-squeek of the markers on paper).
 
Most artists have the luxury of a studio area complete with the tools of the trade close at hand, their personal choice of music, the ability to put your brush into the water bucket and get a cup of coffee or taking a break, all their reference material nearby, and best of all no deadline that is mere hours away including transportation.
 
The courtroom artist generally works in black and white on medium-sized sketchpads.  During a break they may run to their diy office in the closest restroom to quickly apply watercolor pigments if that is in the assignment. The pressure to create a piece of art that will not appear to be done by a 5 year old is intense.
 
I was a courtroom artist for several years.  I wielded my art whenever there was a particularly gory case being tried in a venue in which cameras were not allowed. Think dismemberment or other inhuman forms of human behavior. Or spy trials like the Walker family. Or big money and well known community figures. Human interest in the vein of if it bleeds it leads.
 
Getting a court assignment was always a challenge and many times a panicky challenge. Every time was like the first performance of an actor in front of a paying audience. Can I do a good job? Will my seat let me see the main players:  defendants, defense, prosecutor, jury? 
Judge in courtroom featured in courtroom art
 
The judge was easy.  The judge always faces the crowd from an elevated position.
 
While you are considering who could do this awful thing to somebody else, you also have to concentrate on making that nose long enough but not too long.
 
Lawyers and judge

Getting the painting job done.

I learned a few interesting things to help me do my job. The most important one was that everyone tends to revert back to their common positions. Lawyers especially. If the lawyer stood with both arms folded and then they turned to address the jury or acknowledge the defendant, they would inevitably return to the folded arm position. Thus as an artist I would start a very quick sketch and when they changed positions flipped my page and start the next one and then flip back when they came back to the first position. That resulted in many starts on many pieces of sketch pad paper. When I finished for the day, I would choose the sketch that I felt was the best of many.
 
Last year a young filmmaker visited my studio.  He seemed to think we could work together on a project and consequently my art is in the “Innocence Files” (you can find the series on Netflix).  They asked if I thought I could possibly produce courtroom art that would look as if I were in the courtroom at the time of trial. I would use photos they would provide.  Of course I always rise to a challenge and said, “Yes.”
 
The reference material could not have been more difficult to work with. The little girl who points out a suspect in the courtroom is from a photo of an extremely sweet little girl in her backyard. The dates of the trials were near 30 years old and the pictures of the varying actors were from varying dates. The actual court rooms were seen through doors with windows.
 
I have never been more inventive in trying to produce an actual scene in my life. I did the best I could and I hope the results were OK. I felt that if I could do this assignment, then frankly, I could do anything.  Okay, anything except conjure up mechanical or technological images. I just don’t do things geometric or shiny. In retrospect, drawing images from the description of witnesses or victims of crimes came pretty darn close. But they had to relive horrible events and I merely had to interpret them into someone that could be recognized. Which did happen.
 
Witness in Courtroom

Such a Time as This

I assume like us you are at home.

I accessed a global virtual site and traveled virtually to London and Paris and the streets were filled with tourists and city sounds. Of course the tours predated 2020.

Then I checked webcams in different locations today and feel like I am living in an episode of Twilight Zone. The beaches are empty. The streets also. Times Square! Rod Sterling at his best would not have written a more bizarre scenario.

Just as I thought I could not emotionally stand any more politics, garden variety election year politics has been replaced by life and death issues-people sick and dying, joblessness, mental breakdowns, shut down businesses- all with no end in sight. Alcohol flowing quite well.

There is a personal bright side. I have my husband -and best friend- with me in our stay at home life. At least we have a gorgeous view and as of yesterday a new firepit on our deck. The great blue heron continue to fly back and forth over the marsh and our bird feeders attract an incredible variety of birds including bluebirds.

Nobody uses the “busy” excuse anymore.

My grandkids are communicating by text. I am talking more with friends from all over. I am cooking a lot (but then again I am a foodie and have always cooked) And so long as the entire world does not try to watch Netflix at the same time, I can binge watch come of my favorite shows.

On the other hand while I do have time, I have not even started my project of using more social media to showcase my art. However working on going through my photos  is just not on my real to do list. In fact I am avoiding reorganizing and deleting my 17000 photo images. Sigh.

I have done several cartoons that you can see on my Gloria Coker Fine Art Facebook. But my followers though loyal have not shared their enthusiasm. (That is a little joke) But I will persist.

Eventually this will end. Then we can figure out what permanent changes we will face. We won’t go back to business as usual. I hope many changes will be for the better, but we shall see.

In case you missed them, click on the cartoons below to see each one full sized.  Enjoy!!

Ramblings: Drawing from the Beginning

One of my first memories of art is when I was nine years old.  I know I was nine years old because my sister had just been born and my mother came home from the hospital with a bunch of gladiolas. 

I proceeded to take out some colored pencils.  I drew a picture of the floral bouquet which resided next to the drawing that I had copied of a cartoon character.  The character was a duck named Slappy with a little stick over his shoulder holding his little bag of belongings like the hobos would do back in the day. 

I thought the drawing  of the gladiolas was pretty good.  I continued to draw as I grew up, but I never considered drawing to be something that I would do as a job that would earn money for me.  Remember, this pre-dated the current world of graphic design.  At that time, the closest college major for using art in the commercial world would be industrial designing.  So when it came time to consider college, I checked out the courses that were offered in each major and chose psychology instead of art, because the choices were so eclectic from English literature to language to sociology.

I enjoyed drawing cartoons sketches and thought I’d share this one with you today.

artist cartoon sketch drawing from the beginning

If you’re still looking for the perfect last minute Christmas gift, consider a beautiful painting!  If you’d like to schedule a time to consider a painting at the Associates in Dermatology office, give me a call at  757-846-3650

Rambles from a Jazz Festival

I am not unfamiliar with painting in public:

  • courtroom,
  • Virginia Living Museum,
  • art shows,
  • plein aire workshops.

But painting the musicians at the Jazz Festival in Duck, NC was a first for me.

Even though I was in a more isolated spot near the stage, I later discovered people were watching my art progress from the audience. Many stopped to chat as they walked to other areas of the green.

During my time at the Jazz Festival, I had the good fortune of meeting both locals and visitors and even the Chief of Police who shared my Bridgeport, CT heritage.

My biggest hurdle at this outdoor event in early October was how fast the acrylic paints dried even in the high humidity. I found I can be more successful in getting the painting how I would like it when I start by drawing with either India ink or acrylic using a smaller brush.

Next, I slopped on paint even when the sketch was still wet. Not overthinking color and doing what I call “brain stem painting” (i.e. painting by instinct which usually gives me a greater feeling that the end result will work). For me, “brain stem painting” means an emotionally positive feeling rather than an intellectual one.

If I really wanted to be a performance artist I would strap long handled brushes to my hands and have quarts of paint in buckets set in front of a huge canvas. That would be cool and probably messy!

Painting at the Duck Jazz Festival

Artist Sketch Rambles

Artist Sketch RamblesI keep a folder of 8×10 and smaller incomplete sketches and carry it around with me. Many times they spark something and I will often paint over them. Over and over.

When I am feeling ambitious, I organize them according to category:  women, women and the beach, women at a wine bar, women on cave walls, women in cave walls playing musical instruments. You get the picture.

I also print out photos of my paintings in progress. Sometimes I realize (too late) the best work should have been left alone.

Rethinking and painting over a work is something I do when I am second guessing what others might think. This is always wrong.

Yet many times, even I, at late middle age (I am an optimist),  paint with someone looking over my shoulder  – metaphorically speaking.   Like my husband suggesting, “It needs more red.” Or perhaps a friend commenting, “What’s that curvy line all about?”  But I’m just considering what they may remark.

Then I look at art painted by others that works for me.  I know I could critique the heck out them, but my corrections would only make the spark disappear.

The answer is to paint until I feel that any more intellectual effort will deaden it and then stop.  Then check back a few days later and any real problems will shout at me. But if I still like the painting, I will leave it alone. Art (unless you were hired to do something specifically) is for you and not the world.

Once in a blue moon, I haul out some art books to try to understand color better.  You know.  Fill in the blanks of info I never learned. because I did not go to art school.

Primaries,

tertiary,

split tertiary,

squared infinity (just joking) and it all looks so mathematical.

I look at the paintings shown as examples and frankly most are so boring. Maybe I am just too critical, but it seems to me once you have painted for years, you should have some intuitive feeling about what clicks for you.

One story sticks with me…

The widow of a famous painter (whose colors were incredible) was asked what color theory he used. She responded that he did not have one.  He just kept painting until it felt right. Bingo!

So after several hours of painting color sketches using the books’ suggested pigment combinations I put it all away. They sucked.

No real lesson here.  Just a nudge to fellow artists who struggle with color to just persist.

(Love that -just persist- SHE PERSISTED – might make me a t-shirt)

Artist Sharing About Life, Part 2

This continues my sharing from Part 1Go there first is if you haven’t already.

I drew everything that could not be photographed.

Rock concert and loss of hearing? No problem.  I used Edvard Munch’s “scream” running away from the musicians in the background.

Gay marriage in the 80’s?  No problem.  I asked two staffers to hold hands while I drew as fast as I could.

There were no iPhones and no time to process photos so I sketched very quickly- everything from religion and science, to politics and editorial cartoons.

I was allowed to go outside the building on location to sketch films like the George Washington mini-series and a film about crabbing.

I flashed my press pass and talked my way onto the Colonial Parkway in Williamsburg after it shut down for President Reagan’s visit. Me and hundreds of turkeys. 

I drew a revolutionary re-enactor in Yorktown while he told me about his messy divorce.

I talked my way to the top of the five tallest buildings in the area to sketch what I saw.

I learned to have someone evaluate my drawing for those stupid little mistakes, that in our haste, we sometimes forget we do; like making a common object resemble a genital organ.

I sketched in the jail, talked my way onto a Navy shuttle to the Canadian Tall ship, The Blue Nose, to sketch.  I figured I could talk my way anywhere!

I did courtroom art for the daily paper.

This is a specialty that no one trains for. You just do it. I did interview the dean of courtroom artists and she told me she gained expertise in art school by drawing the bodies in the morgue. Just like the stories you read about the old masters in Europe.

The courtroom is probably the most difficult of drawing situations. Utter and complete quiet. (They hated anyone who used Magic Markers because of the squeak)  I was fixed in the seat I chose or was able to squeeze into and drew from there – whether I could see anything or not. The one lesson I learned was that everyone who speaks to a crowd (lawyers, judges, etc.) always reverts to their familiar  poses. If they are fond of folding their arms they will eventually go back to that position so I would make numerous “starts” and go back to them to complete them when the person went back to the position.

Trial Art for Artist Sharing about life

I was only asked to draw the courtroom cases if they were brutal, gory, or important.

In one dismemberment case, a witness was asked how tall the victim was and he responded by using his hands to gauge the size of the suitcase the body parts were stuffed into.

In another murder case the forensic dentist was testifying how the bite marks on the victim’s thighs were from the teeth of the accused.

John Walker was on trial for spying for the Russians, but I drew the Arthur Walker spy trial. Arthur was his brother who appeared on the first day bedecked in a full toupee.  He shed it the second day and through the rest of the trial f0r a little loop in my drawing.

Never draw a judge with six fingers.

I learned many things about accuracy.  This is especially true when the drawing is on the front page of the daily newspaper above the fold. I got lots of critiques from the public. 

I studied photography with David Levinson. 

He was a photographer who led the professional world in NYC.  He pushed us into thinking and doing photography way past what we ever thought we would be able to do. Suffice to say he made people cry. But the work people did was incredible. 

I attended Thomas Nelson Community College to gain some expertise on photographing for reproduction. No one does that anymore since the computer does it all for you. But I did take photography classes.  I learned the old fashioned way with dark rooms and chemicals. I set up a lab at home and my poor kids were banished from the bathroom. 

I chose JoAnn Falletta

Downbeat - more artist sharing about lifeI decided I was going to do a series of women of accomplishment in traditionally male jobs,  I chose JoAnn Falletta, the conductor of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, as my first subject.  She was also the music director for the Long Beach California Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. I cannot begin to describe her swath of accomplishments.

When I finally pursued my project long enough and hard enough, I was put through to her at last.  She allowed me and my 35mm camera onstage during the rehearsal of the Bruckner 4th.  I could not use a flash. 

The resulting photos showed a sweep of her baton.   The sound reverberating on the stage and through the floorboards where I sat in the violin section will always be a high point in my memories. This experience started me on the road to adding movement to my art and still continues to influence me today.

An Artist Sharing About Life, Part 1

Artist sharing about life at SWCCA few weekends ago,  I gave a talk at Southwest Virginia Community College just before taking down my art display. You think college, you think college students, but there were alas only two that Sunday afternoon. But who could blame them.  It was a gorgeous spring day in the Virginia mountains.

I was going to lead with a brief … what can a wrinkled old artist from Newport News teach you about the art you will be creating in the future …  then taking back the word “wrinkled” in lieu of texture which is much more artistically valued. Everyone in my audience was wrinkled.  Instead I was forced to finesse that opening a bit. 

I almost broke out in a sweat.

I was thinking back to a  time when I was doing my art without an iPhone camera for photos and no scanners for the art to be published.  It was a time you were required to actually draw.  There was no social media and Google to expand your files of ideas and reference material.   I am not sure any current college-age student would even begin to appreciate the difficulties in reproducing art (which is what I did for 12 years as a newspaper illustrator). Wait.  I am getting ahead of myself.

I was a commuter to college. 

Campus was two buses each way. Since my immigrant parents did not think continuing education was a good thing for a girl who should get a job, bring home her paycheck and live at home, I managed to pay for college through scholarships.  In my scholarship application, I wrote about being a first generation American and my life.  Guess I pulled enough sympathy from those who did the selecting that I got my education taken care of.  I  also worked after classes to have pin money.

I majored in Psychology. 

I was naive.  I loved the course selection, but did not realize you can do nothing without obtaining a graduate degree.  I got a job at Electric Boat in New London, Connecticut.  I spent my time there organizing the library for the Human Factors section.  It was books and papers.

About the jumper off the sixth floor?

I met a submarine doctor.  We got married, and moved to Houston.  There I worked at a charity hospital as a psychiatric social worker.  Once again, I had no experience.   I screened patients who had mental issues. 

Lock your door there’s a guy with knife.
Did you hear about the jumper from the 6th floor?
Good news is he did not land on the folks waiting for the bus.
Very interesting place.

I also schlepped patients from the ER to the mental institution. 

How do I know he is mentally ill?
Talk to him for 5 minutes. 
He’s probably just an alcoholic (think not really dangerous).

Me, a 28 year old mom, with complete strangers in the backseat of our Chevy Malibu.  Me, signing my name, affirming they needed to be committed. I almost breakout just thinking about it.

Then we moved to Duke and then to Virginia. 

By now I’ve had 2 babies.

Everyone at that time was a stay at home mom, but I enrolled in William and Mary College for a Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling.  It took 4 years.

The Feminist movement just beginning. I was active. I got fired from an internship at a local high school for encouraging girls to ask for a shop class. The girls came to me. But the principal and the department heads were very threatened.

All in all, my hard-earned degree did not matter since I took a part-time job as an illustrator for daily paper.  Actually, it was more like the morning and evening paper with full-time work for part-time pay.  But I loved it.  Every story for the newsroom was a challenge. 

Stay tuned for more in Part 2 next week.

Recent Smaller Paintings

In anticipation of the holiday season, I’ve been putting together a number of smaller paintings that might interest my patrons for holiday gift giving.  These are fun pieces and many of them are already in lovely frames.  Come by my Home Studio Open House on December 11th to take a gander.

In the comments below, be sure to let me know which painting is your favorite . . .

 

 

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