The following is an interview featuring Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Arts, Prints and Photographs Division.
Running through October 28, a new exhibit at the Library of Congress, “Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration,” showcases extensive collections of original courtroom art held by the Prints and Photographs Division. Represented are 98 drawings by talented artists hired by both newspapers and television to capture the personal dynamics of legal trials.
In an interview with Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Arts in the Prints and Photographs Division and co-curator of the exhibit, we get a glimpse behind the scenes of the development of this Library of Congress exhibition.
Julie: What was the selection process? How were you able to choose from over 10,000 drawings?
Sara: Our team consisted of four staff. For the smaller collections, we went through every drawing and took meticulous notes about which were likely and which were not. For the larger collections – Marilyn Church and Joseph Papin both have over 4,000 drawings – the team went through the Excel spreadsheets for those collections, and requested trials. In all, I probably pulled 3,000-4,000 drawings for the team to review. We ended up with a list almost 400 drawings long. I pulled all of the drawings that made that initial pass, and we started the process of shaping the exhibition and removing drawings from the list. When we got down to about 100 drawings, we pulled in Library management to help us select down to the 50-75 drawings we had intended to display. They told us to keep all of them. We have 98 drawings on the wall and 19 related objects from the Manuscript Division and the Law Library of Congress. One of my favorites is Thurgood Marshall’s manuscript notes paired with the drawing of the Supreme Court on Regents of the University of California v. Bakke [see image above].
Julie: How long is the process from concept to exhibit?
Sara: I have been thinking about this exhibition for a couple of years as the collection grew – both in size, but as well as scope of artists. I had hoped to collect art from a few more artists, but when a donation came through to support the exhibition for 2017, I took advantage and selected from what my predecessors and I had acquired. The short answer is one year, but it’s a marathon at that timetable!
Julie: How does the exhibit highlight different styles of courtroom drawings?
Sara: After acquiring work from several artists, I realized that there is definitely a regional style. California artists tend to be much more gestural – but if you look at their art on television, it comes through almost like sculpture. They really understand what television can do to a color drawing – even with black & white television – and used color to their advantage to make facial features stand out [see left image below from California]. Midwestern artists tend to be very realistic – down to the shine in a pitcher of water – they document exactly what they see in a very straightforward manner. East Coast artists tend to compose images – even when they draw exactly what they see, they tell more of the story than other regions [see right image below from New York]. Some of the regional differences are guided by what newspaper or television reporters want to convey, other by personal styles and inclination.
Julie: Did you come across anything surprising when examining the collections?
Sara: What surprised us was how unexpectedly dynamic some of the trial drawings were – like the accumulated drawings of the Chicago Seven trial [see left image below]. They really told a story of activists who wanted social change confronting what was likely considered the epitome of the establishment—the country’s court system. We could have done a separate exhibition just on Howard Brodie’s Chicago Seven drawings.
There are moments in which artists are journalists, like when Elizabeth Williams stayed in the courtroom after Bernard Madoff’s pleas. Typically, with white collar crime, defendants go home until their sentencing. However, Madoff had divested millions in assets, so the court was not going to offer him that option. Williams was the only artist – or journalist – to stay in the room long enough to see the image that the artist believed America wanted – Madoff in handcuffs [see right image below].
Julie: What do you like best about courtroom drawings in general?
Sara: Courtroom drawings tell a story about a moment in time. Artists distill the essence of the courtroom in a way that photography cannot do – the defendant’s bearing, a lawyer’s gestures, the particular body posture of a judge. They are an art form that has been overlooked, because it takes real talent to draw accurately and quickly with your materials in your lap. I love the immediacy but also their relevance to American history and culture. The drawings depict American’s attitudes towards race, gender, and class. They show how fashions change – and how people change over time. They are art and journalism rolled into one.
This exhibit gives a small glimpse into the over 10,000 courtroom drawings housed at the Library of Congress. To view other drawings from the collection, an appointment in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room is required.
- If you cannot visit in person, you can still view all 98 drawings in the online exhibition “Drawing Justice: The Art Room of Courtroom Illustration”!
- Explore other court-related photographs such as courthouses from the Historic American Buildings Survey.
- Enjoy all the other exhibitions currently on display at the Library of Congress!
- Curious about courtroom attire? Read a past Law Library blog post “What do I Wear to Court?”