Reflections from sketching courtrooms


Molly Crabapple sez, "In the past three years, I've sketched many courtrooms and seen the "widget factory" that is the criminal justice system firsthand. Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene. The courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts."

In the past three years, I've sketched many courtrooms. I sat in Fort Meade drawing the back of Chelsea Manning's cropped blonde hair. In Guantánamo Bay, I drew Khalid Sheikh Mohammed through layers of bulletproof glass. I've been to hacker trials and misdemeanor court and the sentencings of friends—though at my lone disorderly conduct hearing, I got an ACD (which is short for adjournment in contemplation of dismissal) so fast I couldn't even reach for my sketchpad.

The trials I've drawn have mostly been politically motivated. The defendants, however victimized, were also heroes of their stories. They read statements they agonized over, knowing that it might be a long time before they could speak again. The courts tried to stamp out all that was special, to make them fit into what activist Mariame Kaba of Project NIA calls the “widget factory” that is the criminal justice system. Their supporters tried to tear through the ritual, to remind them they were important and loved.

At Chelsea Manning's trial, her supporters wore shirts reading “Truth.” Chelsea was not allowed to turn around to see.

But the average defendant isn't a famous whistleblower. He's a person of color charged with a drug crime. Most trials resemble not grand dramas but factory farms. The raw material is a person. The product is a prisoner. Trials are deliberately dull. They move glacially, on state time rather than human time. If you hire your own lawyers—a necessity to have a chance of winning—you'll blow through your life savings. As the cop cliché goes, “You can beat the rap, but you can't beat the ride.”

Theater of Justice (Thanks, Molly!)

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  1. This is really interesting, because it presents a dimension to the artist's work I had not seen presented before, and adds weight to the reality of their work. Art can be seen as something so removed from social and political reality in electronic media (Edit: And in galleries), and it might be easy to be pigeon-holed as up-yer-own-ass even if you produce art with political content, but being a courtroom artist is socially real, which, well, I dunno, like I said, adds weight to the artist's work. The feature image used here reminded me of Steadman and Scarfe, and I guess there are other news journalism cartoonists that work in a similar style?

  2. IMB says:

    I didn't read the article, although I clicked through because I enjoyed the sketch, I was hoping for more.

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