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.
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,” 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.
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, 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.