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Courtroom artist in Donald Trump’s fraud case has a different view


When former President Donald Trump’s eyes closed as his former accountant testified in his civil fraud trial in New York State Supreme Court this fall, no photographer could capture the moment: Cameras were banned during the hearing.

But several courtroom artists, an anachronistic group who continue to use chalky pastels to draw scenes from camera-free courtrooms to sell to TV stations and newspapers, have erased Trump’s eyeballs from their sketches.

“He shakes his head!” artist Isabelle Brourman whispered to a colleague.

Brourman, a 30-year-old newcomer, was not part of the dwindling coterie of commercial courtroom artists who made their living selling cinematic, sometimes vaguely expressionist, test drawings to news organizations. He’s there for a different kind of art project: The mixed-media artist found himself in major trials last year, sketching the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard case in Virginia and exhibiting the resulting work at a gallery in Los Angeles, and now the extraordinary fraud of a former US president tries to capture the frenetic energy and political theater of his trial.

“I wanted to bring something disorderly into such a regulated space,” Brourman said recently in the marble halls of the courthouse.

His bleeding watercolors and rough lines are surrounded by fragments of legal arguments written in the margins around his subjects. The resulting images are breathtaking in scale and microscopic in detail. They are also quite stubborn.

So are his subjects.

Every day, before the arrival of Arthur F. Engoron, the judge in the Trump case, sketch artists are surrounded by powerful men. Lawyers pleaded for slimmer bodies, witnesses asked for more hair to hide bald spots, and even the former president occasionally appeared to pose from across the defendant’s desk.

Brourman frequently stands out in the usually staid courtroom, wearing outfits chosen by fashion designer Mia Vesper, who dressed her for the hearing.

“This is my attire for criminal conduct,” Brourman said of the checkered red-and-black suit he wore in court that day, explaining that his attire, which included suits made from 1960s wedding blankets and Uzbek vegetable-dyed materials, had become fashionable. part of the project. “As this progresses, I become more aware of the performative qualities of making art in court.”

The project has its roots in Brourman’s own experiences with the legal system. In 2022, she filed a lawsuit against Bruce Conforth, a former professor at the University of Michigan, accusing him of sexually harassing her; Several other women accused him of sexual harassment. (Conforth denied any wrongdoing.)

He initially set out to document the legacy of the #MeToo movement by drawing high-profile cases, illustrating the Depp-Heard case and the recent sentencing of “That ’70s Show” star Danny Masterson on rape charges. . This year, he exhibited his work from the Depp-Heard trial in an exhibition called “Virginia is for Lovers: Official Courtroom Drawings from Depp v. Heard” at a courtroom-like gallery in Los Angeles.

But now he has moved on to other kinds of experiments. In depicting Trump’s trial, he shifted his focus to courtroom theater. The resulting sketches became more expressive, evoking the political spirit of Ben Shahn, the emotional candor of Alice Neel, and the fantasy style of Ralph Steadman.

Brourman moves quickly when drawing. During a hearing in October, he used the bright colors of the stenographer’s outfit as the focal point of his drawing. Another focus of his work is covering Trump and his sons, Donald Jr., including his own companies. and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who filed the lawsuit accusing the other defendants, including Eric, of fraudulently inflating the value of assets to obtain favorable loans and insurance. opportunities.

“It’s incredibly balanced,” Brourman said. “He stays in the same posture throughout the day, with his hands clasped and his head up.”

James took notice of his work. “Courtroom artists offer the public an intimate view of some of our nation’s most poignant legal proceedings,” he said in a statement. “It’s incredible to see how Ms. Brourman captures these images in real time and brings the courtroom to life.”

Trump’s lawyer, Alina Habba, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But in court last Thursday, Brourman said the former president examined the work of artists in the courtroom and declared his was “wonderful” before adding: “I need to lose some weight.”

The increasing acceptance of cameras in more courtrooms and the fact that many trials today are now televised or livestreamed have decimated the profession of courtroom performers. The field dates back to before the advent of photography, but it also grew again in the 20th century amid fears that cameras were turning courtroom proceedings into spectacle.

Thomas Doherty, a cultural historian at Brandeis University, said concerns grew during the sensational 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son. Newsreel companies were accused of violating their agreement with the judge by filming dramatic testimony, causing public uproar.

Two years later the American Bar Association called for a ban on photography, which was adopted by most states and expanded to include television in 1956.

“There was hesitation that the photography would undermine the seriousness and dignity of the judicial process,” Doherty said.

But over time, more states began to allow the use of cameras in courts, and the Bar Association officially lifted the ban in 1982.

During Trump’s fraud trial, the judge allowed photographers into the courtroom at the beginning of each day before the trial began. But when the testimony begins, it’s just the sketch artists trying to capture the images.

Brourman won his seat on a lark by covering important cases in American politics. At another of Trump’s hearings, he went to the hearing carrying watercolor paintings, but lacked the press pass that allows official sketch artists to enter the courtroom.

In the end, the court decided to give him a chance based on his project proposal and previous drawing samples.

“All courts are open to the public,” said Al Baker, the court’s communications director. “Sketching artists who have expressed a desire to work at the palace are being scrutinised, and Isabelle Brourman, although unique as an artist, is no exception from a safety, security or practical standpoint.”

Although recognition of courtroom artists is growing in some circles (the Library of Congress maintains a collection of their sketches), the world is shrinking.

“The number of court artists has decreased over the years,” said Jane Rosenberg, 73, who draws for publications such as Reuters and CBS. “When I started 40 years ago, there were around 17 artists. Now there are usually two or three people in the room.”

Rosenberg is easily recognized thanks to the binocular mechanism he wears around his head, attached to bifocal lenses that allow him to quickly switch between the referee’s magnified expression and his drawings. The device sometimes attracts attention: While sketching the 2021 trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who was convicted of conspiring with Jeffrey Epstein to recruit, groom and sexually abuse underage girls, the defendant began sketching the courtroom artist.

The few surviving court artists, like country doctors, rushed to trials and hearings as soon as possible, often for a pittance – only a few hundred dollars for a drawing.

“This is a lot of hard work,” artist Christine Cornell said, pausing to wipe away smudged blue pigment from her nose and lips during Trump’s fraud trial. “The market has become smaller and tougher.”

At first, Brourman’s arrival sparked fear of competition. But when other women saw the jagged lines in her sketches, they warmed to her presence and realized she wasn’t competing with them for orders from media outlets that preferred realistic images.

“He amazes me every day,” said Cornell, who admires Brourman’s work.

Brourman adopted an improvisational style to capture the big moments of the Trump trial; This included the former president storming out of the courtroom the day Engoron received a $10,000 fine for violating a gag order, angering his former lawyer Michael Cohen. -examined.

Donald Trump Jr. When he testified, he made two demands of the sketch artists. He initially wanted to look “handsome” and later examined their work as he left the courtroom. The next day he was more specific. He showed them a cropped image of curly-haired crypto tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried, which was shared widely online during the fraud case. (Apparently created by artificial intelligence, not courtroom artists.)

“He looks like a superhero,” Trump’s son told the real-life performers. “Make me look sexy.”

Brourman and his colleagues rejected the request. When he later revealed his portrait, he looked like everyone else attending the trial: exhausted.

c.2023 New York Times Corporation


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