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The Hectic Life of the Courtroom Artist

Artist Jane Rosenberg's work comes in two types: As an an outdoor artist, she regularly takes her paint box onto the streets of Manhattan, and as a courtroom artist, she works by painting trials at a state or federal courthouse.
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Jane Rosenberg has to choose carefully who she tells what to: "When I go to a party, if I tell people I'm a painter, they say, 'That's nice' and then they walk away; but if I tell them I'm a courtroom artist, they say 'Wow' and want to talk to me all night. It's so different and interesting to them. But galleries aren't so impressed, in fact, they don't know what to make of courtroom art (it's not quite fine art, it's not quite illustration) so I only tell them about my paintings. The moral may be that a dual career can help keep conversations from lagging, but Rosenberg's achievement may be keeping both careers active and prosperous.

The New York City artist's work comes in two types: She is an outdoor artist, regularly taking her paint box and French easel out onto the streets of Manhattan to create mostly street-level cityscapes, crowded with people, buildings and color. Interestingly, her paintings, which range in size from 8" x 10" to 20" x 24" and in price from $950 to $3,800, are primarily sold at a gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod. "It's harder to work larger out on the street," she said; perhaps, Provincetown gets a lot of homesick New York City tourists, or the locals are curious about life in the Big Apple. As a courtroom artist, Rosenberg takes her pads of paper and pastel box to cover some trial at whatever state or federal courthouse some television station has called her up about, "sometimes only an hour in advance." Big cities can sometimes seem cramped, but space in a courtroom depiction is intentionally compressed, in order that key figures -- the defendant, the lawyer, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury -- may be included in the same image in order to convey a maximum of information to television viewers.

The two types of artwork have little in common stylistically, although in both Rosenberg needs to work fast. Outdoors, light and shadows change, requiring her to quit after two hours and wait for the same weather conditions and light another day. "I do watch the weather channel," she noted. "People ask me, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' and I tell them, 'It all depends on the weather.'" The pace is more hectic at the courthouse, where a defendant may simply march in at a particular moment, answer "Not guilty," and walk out, all in the span of one minute and all the time surrounded by a phalanx of lawyers and bodyguards. "I saw the back of [pop singer] Boy George's head the whole time, except for one moment when his turned his head, and that was my one chance to see what he looks like," she said. "With [crime boss] Sammy the Bull [Gravano], I saw him walking in for an instant in profile." Rosenberg has trained her eye and memory to catch whatever is distinctive about these and other figures. "If I didn't find a few things about them - a goatee, thick eyebrows, wavy hair - I'd be lost."

Another commonality is occasionally the people around her. On the street or in a park, personal safety can be a concern ("There are definite weirdos around, and I try not to be too isolated,") while fellow courtroom artists regularly battle each other for choice seats at the trial, sometimes jostling one another while they make sketches ("One intentionally knocked over my box of pastels.") However, most street-level passersby are considerate and appreciative, and the majority of artists in the courtroom are willing to give each other an assist, such as telling someone the color of Defendant X's necktie or what type of dress Defendant Y was wearing.

If art world fame means how many people have seen her work, the courtroom art might place her in the same realm as Jackson Pollock, since her trial portraits of Martha Stewart, organized crime chieftain John Gotti, Kennedy scion Michael Skakel, film director Woody Allen and other high-profile defendants have been broadcast over all the major networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC), as well as New York City local affiliates, since 1980. However, those pictures are fleeting, rarely displayed for more than a second or two, and her name is only occasionally listed in an even more fleeting subtitle, so far more people may have seen her courtroom art than will recognize them as hers or know her name as the artist.

On the other hand, the money is quite good, earning her between $50,000 and $100,000 a year over the 25 years that this was her primary work. That income includes not only what the television stations pay her but sales of her drawings to the lawyers, judges and even defendants whom she has depicted, garnering up to $500 a drawing. The lawyers for crime boss Joe Bonano bought nine of her drawings "for cash, but I really prefer checks." In the past few years, Rosenberg has begun to shift the balance of her time towards painting, although she still takes between 30 and 40 courtroom assignments a year. "I work a lot harder on my paintings, and I make a lot less money for them, but they mean much more to me."

Successful now on two fronts, Rosenberg once truly lived the life of a starving artist. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the State University of New York at Buffalow, and her first venture into the commercial art realm, back in the early 1970s, was creating sidewalk chalk drawings of images by Monet and Rembrandt, earning what passersby would throw into a hat. "I actually made a hundred dollars a day, which was very good money back then," she said. That is, if it didn't rain or snow. Her next incarnation was as a quick portrait artist, working on the streets of Provincetown during the summer or in a shopping mall in Paramus, New Jersey during the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years. "The shopping mall was just terrible. Everyone was in a rush, people were in cranky moods, everyone's a critic. Sometimes, I would draw the people; other times, people gave me photographs of their dogs and wanted me to finish a drawing by Christmas, so it could be a present," (to the dog?) For five years, Rosenberg set up her easel at that Paramus shopping mall, because she could earn $7,000 during those six weeks. One winter, she decided to set up shop in Key West, Florida but found there weren't enough tourists on hand who wanted a portrait: "I did terribly that winter, living hand-to-mouth."

"Getting really tired of it," Rosenberg attended a talk in 1979 at Manhattan's Society of Illustrators given by Marilyn Church, who was then in the middle of her own highly successful courtroom art career (covering trials involving boxer Hurricane Carter, serial murderer Son of Sam, real estate magnate Leona Helmsley, political activist Abby Hoffman, Philippine presidential widow Imelda Marcos and the 1993 bombers of the World Trade Center, among others) and subsequently shifted her focus to figurative painting and takes courtroom work on more of a part-time basis. The transition from sketching in the courtroom to painting in her studio has not been an easy one for Church, since her trial work has given her an "addition to speed. It's hard to slow down." Additionally, since she continues to take courtroom assignments, she may need to put down her paints at a moment's notice, grabbing her pad of paper, colored pencils and water-soluble crayons and rush to a court house.

The idea of courtroom art appealed to Rosenberg, who started going to night court with a lawyer friend in order to learn what trials looked like ("It was mostly arraignments of hookers and drug dealers"), where reporters and artists sat, how judges looked, and to build a portfolio of images. Most courtroom artists also describe a sense of excitement of being in a place where momentous decisions are being made about the lives of people who are rich, famous or just recently notorious.

There are no schools that offer courses in courtroom art, and those who have entered this field have learned by doing. Forty-nine states hold mock legal trial competitions for high school students, grades nine to 12, taking the parts of lawyers, judges, jurors and witnesses, and state winners go onto a national contest. Three of these states - California (Constitutional Rights Foundation, www. crf-usa.org), Georgia (Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia, www.gabar.org) and North Carolina (North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, www.ncatl.org) - have contests in courtroom art, although there is no national competition in this field.
Over time, Rosenberg became friendly with court officers, who helped her learn how courtrooms works and how artists and reporters worked within them. One of those court officers allowed her, in 1980, to sit in the courtroom artists section during the arraignment of Craig Crimmins, who had raped and murdered a violinist for the Metropolitan Opera on the roof of the building - it was to be known as The Murder at the Met case - where she made a quick sketch, taking the drawing immediately to NBC's New York affiliate and showing it to the news office's art director, who bought it for $100. "It was my first job, and I was thrilled. Within days, I started getting calls from other local stations and then from networks; it was all word-of-mouth, one art director got my name and number from another." Her self-taught training had quickly become a full-time job. "It's a great way to make money, and you get front row at all the best trials."

For her, it was also a good way to meet a husband. Louis Freeman, a lawyer, noticed her at an arraignment in the late 1980s, catching up to her later on the street and asking her out for coffee. They were married in 1990 and had a son the following year. "I pump him for information," she said. "What does the judge in a certain case look like? Which side in the courtroom does the jury sit on? What's the background of the courtroom?"

There is no association of professional courtroom artists, no registry that television station art directors might look through to find an artist and no industry-wide pricing system. Some local stations and even networks try to low-ball artists. Carole Kabrin of Dearborn, Michigan, who had worked for local Detroit stations for 15 years, turned down an offer by CBS to cover a trial back in 1990, because the network was only paying $200, "which would have been bad for me and bad for the entire profession if I had accepted it, although it was really wrenching to say no to a network." Fortunately for Kabrin, shortly afterwards, ABC hired her on retainer for a dozen years, flying her around the country to cover notable trials for network news.

Needing to work quickly and within a throng, courtroom artists cannot bring oil paints or even water-soluble media to work, generally relying on pastels or pen and ink (sometimes adding a background wash later, if there is time). A drawback of pastels, Rosenberg noted, is that "my hands get dirty, my skin gets dry and cracked. Outside of a courtroom, I never want to see a pastel," but the medium does permit her to capture a good deal of visual information in a short period of time. Some of these courtroom drawings have been exhibited, in the lobbies of federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan, at John Jay College of Law and at both the Museum of the Constitution in Philadelphia and the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, where they are on permanent display.

There is one art gallery in the U.S. that features courtroom art, in addition to other pieces in a representational mode, Gremlin Fine Arts in Manchester, Vermont (802-362-4766, www.thegremlin.com). "It's a niche-type collectible," said Steven Grossfeld, vice-president of the gallery, and a large percentage of the buyers are lawyers, politicians and "people in the entertainment field" - some of whom themselves have been prosecuted - but he added that the market has expanded to more general collectors as well. The type of media in the courtroom art Gremlin represents are color markers, pastels and the occasional acrylic or watercolor, and prices range from a few hundred dollars to $15,000.

The majority of courtroom artists, however, do not look for galleries but sell privately, usually when asked. "I've just been too busy to try to exhibit and sell my drawings," Rosenberg said. "I'll do a mega-trial, doing drawings of people everyone wants to see, and I think, 'I should really market these,' but then there's always another trial."

There are always more trials, and Rosenberg continues to receive hurried phone calls to get somewhere quick with her pad and pastels, but she is spending less time contacting television stations and more time painting on New York's streets. "I feel kind of bad when I watch some big case on TV and see some other artist's work, but as soon as I start painting, I don't care." Back in 2002, she was a founding member of New York Plein Air Painters (www.nypap.com), which is unaffiliated with the national Plein Air Painters of America (www.p-a-p-a.com) and is still in the process of determining the type of organization it wants to be, joining with other New York City artists whose subjects and studios are the streets of Manhattan. "I really like the Village. The buildings are low and you can see the sky," but her favorite subject is people, of which there is never a shortage. What she doesn't see enough of is people like herself. "You'd think there would be more plein air painters in New York, but you don't find too many. When I'm outside painting, people tell me that I'm an inspiration to them."

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