‘My life is bizarre’: the court artist who drew Ghislaine Maxwell brings her back | Life and style

PAstel designs generally do not go viral on the Internet. But this month, thousands of Twitter users were mesmerized by an artist’s sketch of the courtroom of Ghislaine Maxwell – Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged accomplice in sex trafficking – staring at the artist and sketch back.

Twitter users were disturbed. “I thought it was funny at first, but it’s starting to haunt me,” one person wrote. Others have commented on the bizarre and recursive quality of the image – reminiscent of MC Escher’s drawing of hands drawing hands, and raising the possibility of a kind of infinite loop. Was Maxwell trolling us? Or send the artist a disturbing message?

“I don’t know, and I’m not going to try to read his mind,” Jane Rosenberg, the artist in question, told me. “Maybe she was bored just coming out of her jail cell. I know her sister sometimes also does sketches in court. Maybe the Maxwell family just love to draw in their spare time.

She and fellow artist Liz Williams were once drawing Maxwell in a pre-trial motion when they noticed Maxwell, armed with a pen or pencil, returning the favor. She and the British socialite have since become “sketch buddies” of sorts, Rosenberg says. Maxwell sometimes waves to him. Once she said something and Rosenberg realized she was saying, “Long day, isn’t it? “

For Rosenberg, it was actually just another long day as a member of one of America’s rarest and most unusual professions. In more than 40 years as a professional audience artist, she has covered the trials of some “bad guys”, including drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán; famous sex criminals R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby; the bombers of the World Trade Center and the Boston Marathon; Mark David Chapman, assassin of John Lennon; the gangster John Gotti; policeman Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd; and fraudster Bernie Madoff.

Sketches of R Kelly and El Chapo by Jane Rosenberg.

If there has been a major lawsuit in the past four decades, chances are Rosenberg is looking behind a sketchbook. Sometimes his subjects offer unsolicited comments. “John Gotti wanted his double chin removed”, Rosenberg Recount the New York Post last year. And people “always want more hair.” I get this all the time.

Although some state courts now televise trials, U.S. courts have historically refused to allow cameras – because photography is seen as embarrassing and can turn courts into media shows, and because of the risk of compromising the identity of jurors or protected witnesses. (New York allows photography on a case-by-case basis, but federal courts strictly prohibit it.)

When courtroom artists sketch jurors or sensitive witnesses, they often leave their faces blank. Rosenberg’s illustrations of the Maxwell trial and other cases include poignant portraits of anonymous witnesses with ghostly images, white faces, their features are sometimes even more obscured by hands holding fabrics.

Witness ‘Carolyn’ answers a question from defense attorney Jeffrey Pagliuca during Maxwell’s trial. Photograph: Jane Rosenberg / Reuters

Courtroom artists to believe that hand-drawn art is more forgiving than photography, and potentially less sinister; it also has the benefit of artistic licensing – artists can compress people and action into a single frame, conveying a sense of drama and atmosphere in the courtroom that is difficult for photography to capture.

The work demands a brutal schedule. Rosenberg, who lives near Columbia University with her husband, a criminal defense attorney she met in a courthouse, wakes up at 4 a.m. most of the time to prepare for court and arrive in time for good seats. When not in court, she is on call – arrests or indictments can be announced at any time, and the media often contact her at the last second – so, like a country doctor, she has always her briefcase ready and waiting next to her. apartment door. Her kit includes prescription binoculars and finger cots, the small latex thimbles that protect her hands from drying out.

Every evening when she gets home, she spends at least half an hour cleaning her gear and ordering pastels to replace ones that are worn down to a quarter of an inch. When I spoke to her on the phone, she had just finished sorting and throwing out “a million tiny pieces of black.” She has to work in daylight or she cannot see colors accurately.

Charges are especially stressful, due to their brevity – a courtroom artist has to rush to capture the accused in a few clever lines as he pleads guilty or not guilty. In some large trials, performers are relegated to an overflow room and have to watch through video monitors. During pre-trial motions in the Maxwell case, Rosenberg was able to sit in the empty jury gallery and watch, with rare closeness, as Maxwell dragged himself into the room in chains – greeting people and exchanging pleasantries , and sometimes kisses, with them.

Sketches of Harvey Weinstein and Derek Chauvin by Jane Rosenberg.

Rosenberg sometimes covers trials in other states, but travel is nasty. “It’s hard to fly with my pastels,” she says. “I can’t verify them – they’re all going to break – and when they go through a metal detector they look a bit like bullets.”

While studying art in college, abstract artists such as Willem de Kooning and Alexander Calder were in vogue, and portrait painting was considered an embarrassing past.

“I never knew how I was going to make a living. I struggled for many years, ”she says. “I made chalk drawings on the sidewalk, copying Rembrandt and Vermeer, with the hat for money. I have done pastel portraits for tourists in Provincetown, Cape Cod.

One day she attended a lecture given by an audience artist at the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan. She was intrigued and decided to try to break into the niche industry. “I didn’t think I was good enough or fast enough, but I knew I loved drawing people.” She started hanging out in courthouses, creating a portfolio (“I spent a lot of time in night court, drawing prostitutes”), and eventually sold a custom sketch to NBC.

Since then, she has generally had more work than she can handle. Yet anxiety about job security is a hallmark of the industry. “Ever since I became a courtroom artist, I always thought the cameras were going to be in court at all times. And they passed a bill in 1988 to allow cameras [in New York state courts], and I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over for me. However, this has not been true in all New York State cases, ”and federal courts show no signs of change.

“So I continue to work. There were a lot more audience performers when I started. At the Westmoreland trial “- a explosive defamation case in 1982 -” I counted about 17 artists. Each television channel had its artist, each magazine sent an artist. Now there are about five in New York City. We don’t all survive what happens with the news service and social media; it’s just a different world now.

Each artist in the courtroom works in their preferred medium – some use watercolors or oil pencils, or markers or colored pencils. Like members of any unusual small industry, performers share a quiet camaraderie, which extends to other court regulars, such as courtroom officers, clerks, and journalists. Many have known each other for years.

Rosenberg tries not to speculate on the outcome of the trials until he hears the defense and to keep in mind that the defendants are innocent until proven guilty. She approaches ordeals with a sense of professional estrangement and is usually too focused on drawing to feel emotionally or morally moved. There are exceptions, however, such as the trial of Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman convicted of drowning her children, whose testimony described the death in excruciating detail, or a case involving a woman from the Rosenberg neighborhood. who was raped and tortured by a domestic invader.

“I try not to have any emotion, because the tears that fall on my pastels are not good. But I hear a lot of horrible things and have seen a lot of crime scene photos. Sometimes this happens to me, even when I have tried to be neutral. My life is weird, I guess. Forty-one years of seeing bad things and bad things happen.

Jane Rosenberg sketch from John Evans in 1983.
Jane Rosenberg sketch from John Evans in 1983. Photography: Jane Rosenberg

On a rainy and stormy night in 1983, she sketched the last moments of John Evans as he was electrocuted by the state of Alabama. Evans, the first person to be put to death in the United States after the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, had dropped his appeals and demanded to be executed. It was a horrible debacle. He was electrocuted three times before he died. Rosenberg was traumatized and it turned her against the death penalty. “I felt like my hands were dirty,” she says.

In addition to her work at court, she sells fine art, mainly outdoors cityscapes in oil. However, she doesn’t have a lot of time to devote to it, and the rise in crime in New York City has made the prospect of painting for hours in public riskier. “I have the impression that my neighborhood is not so safe anymore and I don’t feel comfortable being absorbed by a web. I have to keep my eyes open and my ears awake.

At the end of our conversation, I remembered a crucial question I wanted to ask Rosenberg: was Ghislaine Maxwell’s art good?

“I went to his lawyer after the first sketch,” says Rosenberg, “and I said,“ Well, what does his sketch look like? And the lawyer said, ‘Oh, Jane, you know I can’t tell you that.’ “

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