By Kriss Perras
Known partly for her works The Mark of Cain and The Silencing, both published by Viggo Mortensen’s Perceval Press, and her work on the social justice theme of non-fiction crime, Alix Lambert is now hard at work on a graphic novel on the Brooklyn crime scene, a book title of the same name. Through this effort she’s bringing back the art of the courtroom sketch artist. In this Q&A we find out what daily life is like within the criminal justice system.
“I think the courtroom is a fascinating portrait of our community.”
TJ: These are scenes from criminal courtroom trials. Why did you decide to complete such a dark graphic novel?
LAMBERT: I’ve done a lot of work around the world of non-fiction crime. My background is in the fine arts, theater and interdisciplinary arts. I think the courtroom is a fascinating portrait of our community. They’re open to our community. They don’t allow cameras, and so we have a situation where you have politics and theater and law and writing and everything that interests me is all in this one room. You can come and sit and listen to what’s going on that you’re probably not paying attention to. I’m actually surprised that more people don’t do it, because it is this resource and this transparency that we have that I think is important that we’re seeing corroded. When you just kind of wander in there everyday, it’s not about one specific case. It’s more about a pastiche portrait of crime in the Supreme Court criminal system. I think in that way you’re sitting in on cases that aren’t getting any attention. It’s not like it’s the Michael Jackson case or something. This is the guy who lives two blocks away from you who stabbed somebody during a pool game that you never read about, but the details of that are very illuminating. I’m somebody who likes to listen to people’s stories.
TJ: What happens when you go in a courtroom to do this? Take us through a typical day of sketching.
LAMBERT: The Brooklyn Criminal Supreme Court is on Jay Street in Brooklyn. It’s within walking distance of where I live. You can go in and go up to the clerk and say what cases are available and open? Then they have a calendar, a list. You can actually go online and see what court cases are available, see the docket. Then you need the judge’s permission. I’ve never had a judge turn me down. They just want to know why you’re in their courtroom. Then you draw. I think they start at 8 or 9 in the morning. They take a lunch break like everybody else. I often talk to the judge. The other people who are there are the family members of the defendant or the prosecuting side, so they’re all talking freely.
TJ: While you’re there, do they get emotional?
LAMBERT: Yeah, they have opinions. Jury selection is fascination to me. You’re paying attention to a lot of different personalities. You see how complicated it is. Also what kinds of things are influencing. The abilities of a lawyer. It’s everything. The person who tells the best story wins that case. It has very little to do with the facts, necessarily. It’s often like this lawyer is really falling down. The most recent one I was sitting in, the judge was clearly annoyed by the prosecuting lawyer and kept criticizing. The judge was asking him if he was going to submit a video tape into consideration as evidence. The lawyer kept talking about “my client wants me to.” The judge was saying “well you’re a lawyer, you’re supposed to be representing the best interests of your client and not just doing exactly what they’re telling you to do, because he may not know whether it is good to submit the video or not.” The lawyer kept doubling down. By the end of this back and forth, they had sent the jury out of the room. The judge was now annoyed with the prosecuting team. I wasn’t there for the ruling on the case but just that irritability, you could see it was going to influence the jury, it was going to influence the judge, it was going to influence everybody. I don’t know what happened in the case, but the lawyer himself was annoying the judge. Also all the surrounding details that you’re not going to find in books or movies. While you’re on the elevator, the button to close the doors is disabled on all of those elevators, because defendants or criminals trying to run out of there and get out of the building and shut the door while people are chasing them. All of the garbage cans are bolted to the floor. All of this stuff that you don’t even see is in the service of impending chaos at any moment in this building. That’s interesting to me. You’re on the elevator and everybody else on the elevator is a judge or a lawyer or a defendant. They’re all talking. They’re talking pretty freely because for some reason I think in elevators and cars you think you’re in some kind of privacy, but you’re not. All of that is very interesting to me, all of the aspects of the social, what it says about our criminal justice system which is in my mind a reflection of our society at large.
TJ: Does the criminal ever watch you when you’re sketching that person?
LAMBERT: Usually the people who asks me about the sketches are the legal teams. What’s are you doing? We’d like to see it. They’re very sweet. They’re interested in the drawings. They want to see what they look like. I think the defendant is usually in more of a controlled situation. They’re not free to go around and talk to you the way a judge or lawyer or officer of the court has come up and said, “Can I see what you’re drawing?”
TJ: Do they ever threaten you?
LAMBERT: No, no, no. It is a dying art, but there are still courtroom artists who do it for a living depending on the state and whether they admit cameras or not. It’s not a secret subterfuge or something. I tell them exactly what I’m doing. I say I‘m working on a graphic novel. I’m not being dishonest about what I’m doing in there. They seem very excited about it. Actually the last judge I talked to has a collection of courtroom drawings. He said next time you come I’ll show you the drawings. They’re from a famous artist. I have one drawing from Honore Daumier who is a great French courtroom sketch artist. That tradition is interesting to me. Also the standpoint of drawing from a utilitarian artistic expression, that it’s actually still used in this way, that it has a utility, that it’s not decorative.
TJ: Is it a dying off art or is it…?
LAMBERT: It’s dying off because as you’ve seen from recent famous criminal cases, it’s up to the judge. Are we going to admit cameras into the courtroom? The minute cameras are in there, you don’t really need the sketch artist. It’s dying off in that way. It’s rare. It’s certainly rare that anyone would make a living off of it anymore. People still do it. You still see them in the papers.
TJ: How do you choose which crimes to sketch?
LAMBERT: I really don’t. I really go to the courthouse, and I sit in on whatever case is open. That’s important to me that I’m not actually selecting. I want to see what is happening. You’re in one day a domestic violence case another day you know. That way you really see what is showing up as opposed to intentionally trying to preselect a case that may or may not be the most reflective of everything around you.
TJ: How is the book going to be published?
LAMBERT: There will be a limited edition that’s all lithographic prints. That will be a shorter but a finer production of maybe 24 pages. That will be put out by World House Editions this October. There will be an unlimited edition which will have much more information in it. It will be a regular book. That will be put out by Hat and Beard Press a few months later.
ON THE WEB:
World House Editions: https://www.worldhouseeditions.com/node/603/1
Hat And Beard Press: http://www.hatandbeard.com
Alix Lambert: @lixilamb