Kudos for the Courtroom Artist

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In the wake of “Deflategate” (or whatever they’re calling the controversy surrounding New England quarterback Tom Brady these days) and then “Sketchgate,” I think it’s time to speak up for courtroom artists everywhere.

Full disclosure: Jane Rosenberg, the artist at the center of the recent storm over her less-than-perfect depiction of the handsome quarterback, is a pal of mine. I worked as a reporter covering a court proceeding alongside Rosenberg, who was the assigned artist. Rosenberg is a 35-year veteran and widely considered to be one of the best in her field.

Theirs is one tough job. First, as freelancers, they have to hope the judge allows them into the courtroom and gives them a seat where they can actually see the people they are hired to draw. They work in incredibly small spaces, balancing big pads of drawing paper on their laps. If they’re lucky, they have a place to put their pastels, colored pencils or watercolors. If not, they have to hold them in one hand while drawing with the other.

They never know how long a court proceeding will last, so they work at breakneck speed to capture the newsworthy and emotional moments in the room. They never know when the news organizations that hire them will want the work delivered outside to show the world.  

On Aug. 12, 2015, Rosenberg and a few other artists were allowed in federal court in New York where the photogenic Tom Brady was fighting his four-game suspension by the National Football League for his alleged participation in deflating footballs.  No TV cameras were allowed, so the artists would provide the public with the only glimpse of what it looked like in that room.

After the world saw Rosenberg’s tableau — specifically, Brady’s face — reaction was almost immediate.

Cyber-bullies lifted the Brady face from Rosenberg’s sketch and superimposed it on animated film favorites E.T., Yoda and Quasimodo. The face was inserted in Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream”; and it was put atop Michael Jackson’s dancing body in a screen shot lifted from the “Thriller” music video. Sportscasters called the hollow-cheeked sketch “awful” and “hilariously horrible” and laughed themselves silly.

“You broke the Internet today,” a reporter told Rosenberg after the sketch went viral.

“I apologize to Tom Brady for not making him as good looking as he is,” the good-natured but clearly shaken Rosenberg said.

The cyber hate continued for days and Rosenberg says she actually got death threats from die-hard Patriots fans.

The elder statesman of courtroom artists, Bill Robles of Los Angeles, has made a distinguished career drawing celebrity faces and says it isn’t easy.

“When someone’s face is known all over the world, there’s no faking it,” he said.

Aggie Kenny, who has taken her artist’s pad into historic venues such as the Watergate hearings and the U.S. Supreme Court, says drawing well-known figures is most difficult.

“If you don’t quite capture them, there are thousands of critics on hand to let you know it,” she said.

Courtroom artist Elizabeth Williams, who put together the book “The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Courtroom Art” was sitting directly behind Rosenberg at the Brady hearing.

“It’s like a game of musical chairs and you never know when you’ll have to get out of there,” Williams told me.  

“I saw that Jane was drawing the entire court scene … there were, like, 11 different people to capture … and I wondered if she’d have a difficult time finishing it all,” she said. In retrospect, Rosenberg might wish she’d had more time to work on the Brady face.

When the hearing was over, both women rushed their finished pieces outside to deliver to their clients, Rosenberg to CBS and Williams to CNBC. Standing out on the sidewalk in the blazing summer sun, cameramen videotaped their propped-up artwork and instantaneously sent it back to headquarters where it was disseminated worldwide. Rosenberg had no way to know the cyber-tsunami that would follow. She would spend the next several days publicly defending her work.

But Rosenberg may come through this kerfuffle a winner. She says she’s gotten about two dozen serious offers to buy the original artwork and the Sports Museum in Boston wants to host a showing of her Brady sketch along with her drawings from the Boston Marathon bomber case. How much might the controversial Brady piece fetch? As Jane joked during one of her many interviews recently, “I want a million bucks!”

Any takers?

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email.

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