Jane Rosenberg’s “sketching buddy.”Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Jane Rosenberg/REUTERS
Courtroom sketch artist Jane Rosenberg serves as the public’s eyes at the Ghislaine Maxwell trial, which began its second week on Monday. Born in Brooklyn, she has been drawing lawyers and witnesses alike since 1980. She lives uptown with her husband, a lawyer, and sells her oil paintings at Simie Maryles in Provincetown.
Rosenberg’s brilliant work is handmade, though sometimes, after the fact and just for herself, she fixes perceived mistakes using the stylus on a Galaxy Note9.
We talked on the phone over the weekend about her life in court.
What is your workday like? I get up early, super-early. I get to court — well, there’s a lot involved before I start drawing. Today I had to spend hours cleaning my pastels, ordering new ones. There’s a lot of new background colors. I ordered like $200-something worth of pastels. The courtroom is very dark in the background.
You can’t really go to a store in New York anymore and buy art supplies. I used to go to New York Central. Now I have to order them online. I have to sort of guess through looking at a picture online. It’s sad.
What time do you show up? I wake up at four. I have to get there early and secure a seat and get a good angle. I’m in the back — the fourth row, getting a view between two marshals.
Do you have a device you use to magnify, to zoom in? In the old days, before the pandemic, they put the sketch artists in the front row. Now, it’s very limited seating. So I’m far back, and not only do I bring my prescription binoculars, I have a more powerful pair. I did use them once when the little black book was taken out and there were little Post-its stuck on. I couldn’t see it clearly enough because there are giant computer monitors blocking so much.
That seems like such a metaphor — technology intruding on a historical art practice. It’s so different from when I started 41 years ago. I could see so clearly. During the pretrial, I was allowed to sit in the jury box — it was a small courtroom. And there were no computer monitors blocking my view. It was heavenly for me.
You had a drawing that captured Ghislaine Maxwell drawing you, which people were very struck by. In the pretrials in that little courtroom, that’s when the sketching started. She sketched me a few times in a row. Then she started nodding at me and waving at me. She even spoke to me once. It’s really great for me. I’m not going to wreck it. I’m going to keep it going. I need to see her face. It’s like a photographer — they wait for that moment and say someone’s name and they turn to them. That’s the same thing.
I’m not sure why it captivated people so much — the eye contact? I just heard last night it went viral on Twitter. I don’t do Twitter. It’s a few weeks old, that sketch. So whatever!
I think they attributed malevolence to her that isn’t in the actual drawing or in your intention. Well, it’s not my intention. And I’m not going to say anything malevolent right now. I have this thing going! She’s my sketching buddy.
It’s not the first time. The last time was recent — a co-defendant in the Lev Parnas trial was sketching me. What’s going on? Maybe after this pandemic, I look really interesting? But I remember, 35 years ago, Eddie Murphy sketched me on a little Post-it. He gave me the sketch. It’s somewhere in my apartment, buried. I wonder if I could find it.
So you wait for the same moments as reporters — for connection. For color! If something’s happening. R. Kelly sat there like a blob all the time. There was a moment he put his hands on his face. The reporters were like, “Oh, oh, a hand motion!” But with Ghislaine, a lot happens. When she walks in that courtroom, she’s kissing people, saying hello to people, having conversations.
Are you used to the challenge of drawing people who are kept anonymous? Yes, I have been since the days of anonymous juries — maybe there was a mafia trial. Then the terrorists trials. But we always drew the jury. In many trials, the TV people say we can’t show the jury. But we can sketch them if it’s not an anonymous jury.
Photo: Jane Rosenberg/REUTERS
I thought you did a lovely job with “Jane” and “Matt.” No face, no likeness — no eyes, no mouth. I get lucky when they cry, when they put their hands up covering their face; it makes more sense than the blank face. Though Matt had good hair and a square jaw, so I could capture a likeness. Sometimes it works! I am getting a little better at the faceless people. I did R. Kelly — a lot of faceless people in that one. Cosby. But there’s been a lot of sex crimes lately. That seems to be a theme.
A lot of the reporters in the courtroom came basically straight from covering R. Kelly and, before that, Weinstein and Cosby — And Epstein. And Anthony Weiner! It seems so similar. I’m waiting for Trump to come in.
You never know. Is your industry sturdy? How is this as a livelihood? My industry has never been good, but I’m still working like crazy. Since the day I started, there’s been a threat of cameras taking over. But federal courts don’t let cameras in, so they do need me. I’m still working like crazy all the time. I don’t feel secure — I’m still a freelancer.
I wish you were on staff and had nice health care. Good thing I’m married. And I’m old enough to get health care! You can call me a senior citizen.
How many drawings do you do a day? There were days I did seven or eight. I can be working on one sketch and suddenly something else will happen and I’ll switch papers. When that massage table came out, I sketched that scene — suddenly, they opened the table up. I thought it was more important to show the table open.
That was a bizarre moment. That was the kind of thing I like! Yay! Something to draw. Too bad they did it so late in the day. And the sex toys.
It’s rare to talk to someone who has practiced a career for so long. Forty-one years at a job — sort of! I still find my job interesting. I don’t like all the stress. It’s harder and harder as I get older, lugging art supplies — it’s heavy stuff. I love drawing people. I still find it challenging. If you find your work challenging, you’re still going to like it. People look different every day.
What brings you delight in New York City? I love going to a local bodega and having coffee on a bench in the morning. Every day when I’m not in court, I have my breakfast at home. I may exercise. Then I go out just to get out of my apartment so I don’t have cabin fever. I go sit on Broadway to watch people.
What about your fine art? Are you painting outdoors? I haven’t done any plein air since the pandemic. I don’t feel safe standing out with my easel any more. Just the other night, someone was stabbed in my neighborhood. I had stuff happen pre-pandemic with weirdos. It was bad enough to deal with any perverts when I painted out in the parks and streets.
I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t like us cooping you up. I can’t get absorbed in my painting, I gotta keep my eyes and ears open. I gotta be aware now.
Do you and other courtroom artists ever fight? Oh, sure. You don’t want to hear all that.
All I want to hear is that! Oh, no, no. I’m not starting. I get along professionally with most artists. There are some who are just really a problem. It’s not normal, what I put up with from the other ones. I used to have a story every day — they cursed me out! They knocked my pastels over! They’re sly as a fox, they do it when no one’s around, but all the court officers know who they are. They’re not in this trial.
Jeez. It’s much nicer among the reporters! We compete, also! There’s issues of competition for certain clients. Some of us have our set clients, and there’s stealing going on, all kinds of backstabbing going on. It’s not all roses. I’m okay with who’s here, and we do what we have to do.
I’ll leave it, but if you need me to kick anyone’s ass, let me know. Are you big and strong?
No, I’m very weak. They’re like 90-something. But let’s talk about something else!
What are you going to do tonight? I’m not going to talk anymore. I’m going to eat dinner with my husband. I didn’t sleep last night. I stayed up really late and did all my invoices and took care of my paper and paint. I did everything I could except clean my pastels. I sharpened my pencils.
It’s an intense marathon. It’s not healthy in any way. For a marriage, for my health — I’m not going to a doctor or anything. It’s all work. Setting up what I’m wearing, what I’m going to eat that day. I prep the best I can the week before. I don’t have time! I don’t have any time.
In this trial, if you don’t pack a lunch, you’re toast. Forty-five minutes! By the time I shoot and send my artwork, it’s time to go back up. I have five minutes to gobble down a peanut butter and jelly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
— Choire Sicha, New York Magazine
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