By: Alyshah Hasham
Courtrooms can seem like the place time forgot. No more so than when sketch artists huddle on wooden benches, pencils and pens dashing across blank sheets of paper, capturing the drama in one of the few places cameras still cannot go. “It’s kind of odd,” admits Marianne Boucher, who has been a full-time court sketch artist for CityNews for 25 years, and also does work for the Star and others. “You have to rush off and get a drawing of a person.” The job features crushing deadlines in an unpredictable environment — bad angles, packed courtrooms, brief appearances and occasional hostility from friends and families of those involved in the case.
“If I had to think about it, I’d probably scare myself,” Pam Davies laughs when asked how she prepares. “Sometimes the nerves help. Having done it over and over you are prepared for anything. You can’t be inhibited by people looking over your shoulder.”
Davies, a full-time illustrator and court sketch artist for the Toronto Sun for 31 years and now freelancer, is an artist from a family of artists.
“My father was one of Canada’s top illustrators, my mother was painter, printmaker and artist . . . . It was second nature in our home to be drawing,” she says. “I love to draw people, likenesses.”
It was good preparation for the court sketching gig she stumbled into at the request of an editor (her first sketch for the Sun was of Susan Nelles, wrongly accused of murder in the deaths of several babies at Sick Kids hospital).
While there are no official rules that govern court artists in Canada, Davies has her own standards that she adheres to in her work.
“There are three things I feel are important. You absolutely have to have a likeness. Number two, tell a story. There may be something already happening, you already had a sketch going . . . then something may happen suddenly,” she says. A fight might break out, the accused bursts into tears or waves to their family. “Okay, another sheet of paper and start all over again. Thirdly, it is a painting, a piece of art, it has to have a composition and be something you can look back on and say, ‘okay, that works’.”
Courtroom sketching “is really quite intimate,” says Boucher. It’s embarrassing and unnatural to stare at someone and it can be “unnerving” to make eye contact with the subject of the drawing. “I would hate to be drawn too.”
It can be a challenge to maintain a journalistic objectivity in the sketches, Boucher says
For the first sketches while hearing the Crown’s case, you may catch yourself drawing angrily, hard lines, she says. “Then, halfway through the trial you start to soften and see the other side.”
“People just look like people,” she adds. “They don’t show up with horns so we know to run away.”
These sketches are the only way many people get to see the (non-fictionalized) inner workings of the Ontario justice system — a responsibility that both Boucher and Davies take seriously.
“You try and capture the sense that a courtroom is a place where justice is met, a judge is sitting up there carefully weighing evidence,” says Davies. “You have to maintain objectivity, while still trying to give a little drama. You try not make a person look guilty but it can happen.”
And while court sketching has been happening for centuries and the jury is out on whether Ontario will see cameras in the courtroom any time soon, technology hasn’t stood still for the artists.
Eight years ago, Boucher (who now also writes and produces for CityNews) switched from ink to digital, sketching on a tablet. She’s experimenting with animating her sketches to capture moments like an accused person crying.
“It’s still drawing though,” she says. “It’s still low-tech.”
The Paul Bernardo trial was one of the most challenging for Davies, who went every day.
When harrowing audio was played to the jury she and Marianne went to get ear plugs.
“That helped us get through some of that. I pity the people and the journalists who had to intensely listen to every single word,” she said.
For Davies, the “intensity” of the Col. Russell Williams trial also stood out.
“The courtroom was really small, and it was really hard to get a good seat. It was one of those crazy trials where everyone was lining up before dawn to get in. There weren’t any good seats for sketching. I’d take a really good look at him when he walked in,” she says.
“People, you want to get their reactions, their behaviour. In his case when those pictures came up of him posing in the underwear, he was slumped over and he’d look up every time another picture was shown on the monitor,” she said.
“You just don’t want to go too far into their thinking,” says Boucher, recalling the emotion during the several victim impact statements read out by the women sexually assaulted by Dr. George Doodnaught. “I’m just a spectator to their lives. They lived it. I don’t have to go where they’ve gone.”
Two assignments that stick out in her memory are the wrongful conviction appeals of Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard.
“That was a real eye opener, I think everyone should go to a wrongful conviction inquiry just to see how easy it is for people to get tunnel vision.”