Art

Outlander, acrylic and mixed media, 2016.

“My Story/Their Story”: The Art of Marilyn Church

Courtroom drama has always fascinated me, as it does many people—a fact evidenced by the many television shows based on courtroom events. Since photographers are usually barred from actual trials, painters and draftspeople have often stepped in to take their place.  How can these artists depict such fraught scenes so accurately?

Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Marilyn Church, a painter who has spent decades in the demanding position of courtroom artist. In this role, she has captured likenesses of some of the most notorious defendants in U.S. history, including Bernie Madoff, John Gotti, O.J. Simpson, Woody Allen, Tupac Shakur, and David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”). At the same time, she has produced a large body of colorful abstract and semi-abstract paintings and assemblages.

Church’s courtroom job is a documentary one, illustrating factual scenes. Besides this essential artistic duty, she also chronicles her own artistic life. In a recent interview, she characterized her courtroom illustrations as “their story,” while in her studio she continues to paint “her story.” Indeed, her career can be divided into these two seemingly opposing directions.

Church told me that when she started out, she had hoped to be an artist but needed a “day job.” Starting out as a fashion illustrator, she became bored. Since fashion illustration demanded a quick hand to draw models moving along a runway, someone suggested to the artist that she might be adept at courtroom drawing. That proved a far more exciting vocation  for the artist.

Today she says she would have loved to have worked as an artist/reporter like Winslow Homer, who documented the Civil War, but that was not an option during her lifetime. Instead, courtroom reportage provided the kind of drama she sought.

The following drawings and paintings reveal a few aspects of Marilyn Church’s career.

In the drawing below, we observe the extreme drama Church captured when a defendant punched his attorney during his trial. The scribbly quick jabs of blue, white, and black crayon evoke movement and emotions as the artist  deftly brings out the juxtaposition of defendant, lawyer, police guard, and judge.

 

A Defendant who did not like the way his attorney was handling his case, punching him. State Supreme Court, water soluble crayon and colored pencil, 1990.

 
 

Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, water soluble crayon and colored pencil, 1978.

 
 

In contrast to the previous painting, David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as “Son of Sam,” seems eerily serene, even handsome, though perhaps his eyes betray him. The jurors behind him provide a steely commentary.

 

Feeling Trapped, acrylic on canvas, 2017.

 
 

“Feeling Trapped,” a 50” by 48” acrylic painting, at first seems miles away from the 19” x 25” crayon courtroom scenes. But in fact it does allude to both the artist’s feelings in court and those of many of the participants. Church felt cornered by the constrictions of drawing rapidly only what she saw, capturing in her art her feeling that defendants  felt trapped by their dire circumstances.

 

The Sea, acrylic on canvas, 2010.

 
 

In our recent conversation, Church told me she spends nearly half of the year in Amagansett, New York. She loves the sea, and goes to the beach and swims daily when possible. The inspiration she gets from the water, the sea-life, and the birds is apparent, even in her abstract paintings on the subject, such as the one above.

 

Edge of Silence, acrylic on canvas, 2010

 
 

“Edge of Silence, 38” by 56,” is a large, poetic fantasy in which the artist blends blues, oranges, yellows, and shades of white and beige. Skeins of thin paint interrupt the flowing paint in places. Imagination is key here.

Asked which artists she loves and admires, Church responded, “William DeKooning, James Brooks, Arshile Gorky, and, of course, Van Gogh.”

She still works both in the courtroom and at home. Her most recent courtroom series dealt with Larry Ray, just sentenced to 60 years in prison for abusing young college women at Sarah Lawrence. She was appalled at the horrors of his crimes and their effects on the women.  She also was commissioned to make drawings for a documentary about the Holocaust.

Church recently took a short break, but “cannot wait” to get back to painting.
 

 

Ghana Paintings
by Helen Bar-Lev
  Helen Bar-Lev, whose vivid paintings of Ghanaian men and women illustrate this issue’s poetry page, is offering a special set of her paintings of the people of Ghana, either as originals (for $350) or as signed and numbered prints ($20). The paintings, which Bar-Lev refers to as pencil paintings, are exquisite miniatures, each approximately 11cm by 15cm (4.5" x 6"). Sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of these paintings goes to support the Ghana branch of the Sheenway School. Sheenway School in Sasekope Village is the first registered private school in the Volta Region of Ghana. Its partnership with the original Sheenway School in Los Angeles, its enriched curriculum, extended education, and cultural aesthetics provide an unparalleled opportunity for Ghanaian children from pre-K through secondary. To see the full range of Ghanaian paintings or prints available as part of this special offer, contact Helen Bar-Lev and let her know you are a Persimmon Tree reader.

Bios

Artist/painter Marilyn Church, born in 1940 in New York City, has taught at Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute of Technology and has been a courtroom artist for the New York Times and television. She has a BFA from Pratt Institute and has done MFA work at Indiana University and Pratt Institute. She has also studied at the School of Visual Arts and the Art Students League. Church’s drawings have been collected by both the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress, which has 4,500 of her pieces in their archives. She has shown extensively in New York City and on the east end of Long Island. Some of her solo shows include the Julian Beck Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York; the Bernaducci Meisel Gallery, 57th Street, New York City; Carter Burden Gallery; the Roger Smith Gallery, New York City; and the Susan Ely Gallery (2023). Noteworthy group exhibits include: Andrew Kreps Gallery (2021), Carter Burden Gallery, Uprise Gallery, The Brucennial, and Peter Marcelle Gallery. Guild Hall Museum awarded her Best Mixed Media Artist in 2008. She has received a New York Press Art Award and a TV Emmy. A book of her work, The Art of Justice, was published by Quirk Books in 2006. In 2017, her work was the focus of “Drawing Justice,” an exhibition at the Library of Congress. Most recently Church was interviewed on One Night in Central Park, which aired on ABC’s 2020 in May, 2022.

Greta Berman received a B.A. from Antioch College, an M.A. from the University of Stockholm, and a Ph.D. from Columbia. She has been Professor of Art History at Juilliard since 1978. In addition to writing a monthly column, “Focus on Art,” for the Juilliard Journal, she co-curated and co-edited Synesthesia: Art and the Mind.  She has published numerous articles, as well as lectured on synesthesia and other subjects.  

9 Comments

  1. Marilyn Church will be in the history books for documenting the most important trials of our time, and for being a genuine, soulful, searching artist, with great skill and talent. She is also an incredibly generous, kind, decent human being. Great article. Thank you.

  2. I have followed Marilyn Church’s work for years with admiration. Fascinating to find out from this article more personal things about her background, similar to my own, and her work both in courtroom and studio. Thanks to Greta Berman for the insights.

  3. Mimi and I enjoyed our visit with you and Marilyn many years ago.
    I am very much impressed with her artwork and the versatility of her art skills.
    Since 2005, I have developed the “JerryArtCollection”, a collection of over 75 pieces of some of my artwork, so I really appreciate the great artistry of Marilyn.
    Hope you both are still in good health.
    Mimi and I are both “hanging in there”.
    Thanks,
    Jerry

  4. Quite an amazing career and individual. Im sorry she didn’t sketch me on our Turkey trip
    John Tusa

  5. Enjoyed the article and art represented in this excerpt….interested in continuing to follow your newsletter

  6. These are wonderful!!! Real life court drama and then the abstracts that follow. Thanks for the introduction.

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