It was permitted in most trials, and it gave me something to do when there was no-one of significance testifying. Someone on Instagram commented on how they enjoyed the “earnest” and detailed representation of 90s fashion in my courtroom drawings.
To which I replied, look, I was exactly the same freak then as I am now. That wasn’t “earnest”, it was editorial! It was my critique of their Minnesota style choices (and a commentary on their inevitable whiteness). I myself considered having to put on semi-respectable clothes for working in the courtroom a form of costume, in order to “pass”.
Most courtroom artists don’t draw the jury in any detail or try to get their likenesses or clothing, because they don’t have time.
But I could do it, because from the beginning, I was twice as fast as everybody else.
How did I get started as a courtroom artist? Well, somebody died.
I was in my second year at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, having moved to Minnesota to continue treatment for my drug and alcohol addiction and decided to stay for a while. My Illustration teacher suggested that since I could draw so fast and was good at likenesses, maybe I should contact one of the local tv stations about doing courtroom illustration work.
He knew I wanted to draw comics, but he thought it would be a good way to get paid for drawing til I broke in. He was right.
I took an afternoon and went to the courthouse, made a couple sample drawings, and contacted the stations. I met with the news producers at a couple of them, and they liked my work. I was called in to work on my first trial pretty soon afterwards. And one of the stations, WCCO, the CBS affiliate, claimed me as their own right away.
Edit April 22, 2022: Found one of those sample drawings! The drawing above is, I believe, the first courtroom drawing I did. Sadly, it shows the same Minnesota structural violence as all the others: a Black defendant and witness, with white attorney and court members.
The drawing below shows the audience in the courtroom, not the jury. There were almost never Black people in the jury.
There were four local stations in the Twin Cities in the mid-90s, WCCO (CBS), KSTP (ABC), KARE (NBC) and an independent whose call sign I can’t remember. There were also four local courtroom artists, or had been for some years. Each artist worked mostly for a particular station. Right before I contacted the stations, one of them died. Of old age!
Courtroom artists are hired by the press, not the courthouse; there’s a common misconception that courtroom artists are like court reporters, who are the stenotype operators who transcribe speech for the court’s records.
Why was there so much courtroom illustration work in the Twin Cities, at a time when Court TV was exploding in popularity?
Because Minnesota happens to be one of the most restrictive states in the US regarding cameras in the courtroom. Almost every state was allowing local proceedings to be broadcast starting in 1991, but not Minnesota. In the 90s, cameras were almost never permitted in trials at the state level and absolutely never in the Minnesota Federal courthouses. So if the TV stations wanted images to go with their reporting like TV stations in other states had, they needed courtroom artists!
That’s right, I had my first professional art career because of the state I randomly landed in when I wanted to go to the best halfway house.
Pretty crazy, right? But I was really fortunate, because I was damn good at the work, everyone loved my courtroom drawings, and I wound up doing work for the CBS National News and selling drawings to CNN and the local papers when I was barely out of art school. I was settled in an art career that paid handsomely before I even graduated.
There were only three problems: I wanted to draw comics, I wanted to leave Minnesota, and I am a sexual assault survivor.
Working in the courtroom wasn’t sustainable for me in the long run, even if I hadn’t been giving every spare minute to breaking into comics.
I couldn’t handle covering the endless violence against women and children; I was burning out by the time I got my first comics job in 1994. I tried to do both for a few months, because I felt terrible leaving the station with no-one to call. I had worked for them for three years, and I was really fond of the reporters and producers and my fellow courtroom artists.
And I was afraid that if I quit, the artist who would replace me would be a man and that would be one more man in the audience the rape survivors would have to look out at as they testified.
But I got offered a full-time job as the regular penciller on a monthly Star Trek book.
Being the regular penciller on an ongoing monthly book is about as good as it gets for comic artists, and I was thrilled beyond words. It had been my dream since I was seventeen, what I’d been working towards for years. So I had to tell WCCO I was done. I went to the station and collected the drawings that were still there, in a storage room, and brought them home. It’s drawings from that batch that I’m photographing and documenting now.
You can see the previous post of courtroom drawings here.
I didn’t have a camera, and of course there were no camera phones. So until this moment, the only documentation of these drawings that existed was the footage the WCCO-TV cameraperson shot for the night’s news. And the station kept all that footage on BETAMAX tape. So, I am incredibly grateful to my Patreon Patrons, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.
Until today, no modern media record of these drawings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.