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I chatted with a courtroom sketch artist who draws Trump

Christine Cornell has been at this for nearly 50 years—and she's seen it all.

Portrait by Christine Cornell

Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Son of Sam, Bernie Madoff, Lil Kim, the Boston Marathon bomber, Bill Cosby, Uma Thurman and John Gotti all have something in common: their faces have been captured by veteran courtroom artist Christine Cornell.

For nearly 50 years, Cornell has been a fly on the wall for nearly every high-profile trial in the tri-state area, and because cameras aren’t allowed in, her images have often been the only visual glimpse we’ve gotten into these headline-grabbing courtroom dramas.

With Trump’s multiple court cases dominating headlines, I wanted to speak to Cornell about what it’s like to, well, stare at his face all day. I was fortunate enough to chat with her last week via phone from her home in New Jersey about online trolls, her relentless hustle, Rudy Giuliani’s toupee, and the many faces of the former president.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marisa Kabas, The Handbasket: What’s it like to see your sketches splashed across cable news all the time?

Christine Cornell, Courtroom Artist: Well, to be honest, I don't see much of it and that's because I'm usually working when it happens. I'm not a huge TV watcher. I sometimes do try to catch things, but I definitely haven't seen my stuff on cable news. I just think I come home at the wrong hour when I'm not the top story anymore. The top story happened while I was driving home.

KABAS: Do you use social media at all? Do you see people talking about your sketches online?

CORNELL: I've been getting a lot of emails from all over the country, especially since Trump became my most current news. Most of it's positive. I did get one saying “Your drawings suck.” I mean, it made me laugh, and then I said “I'm erasing that. I don't think I wanna see it again.” Oh God, yesterday I got a very vocal one that was so hostile to Trump that it just made me also want to erase it because, you know, negativity is negativity.

KABAS: The subject you're drawing is one of the most famous people in the world, and he stirs up a lot of emotions. What’s it like capturing someone who is such an emotional trigger for people?

CORNELL: You know, his face is—everybody knows it. And he has about three expressions: One is just implacable. You don't know what the heck is going on. The other is angry, and the other is a smug smile.

The thing that's most curious to me about him is that I think he's so in his own world that he doesn't have any receptiveness to other people in his face. It's mask-like. And it's obvious when he goes out to talk to the press after any hearings and he says always the same thing, almost like he's got a teleprompter in front of him, and nothing anybody says to him is of any interest to him. They can just clamor like a howling wind, but he's not going to respond to any of it. He's really unto himself.

Portrait by Christine Cornell

KABAS: You have a really unique glimpse into him as a person that most people don't have. What else have you learned about him by sketching him?

CORNELL: The first time I drew him was in the early eighties at the USFL vs. NFL trial. And he was quite a handsome young thing—kind of like a blonde Elvis. All of his body language was very confident and he liked my drawings. He actually patted me on the shoulder once and told me that I was his personal courtroom artist. I doubt he remembers me. Although the first time I saw him recently at the real estate fraud trial, when he was walking out he said, “how are you doing?”

He doesn't have any interaction with anyone in the courtroom. The marshals make sure of that. They restrict us all to stay in our seats when he gets up to move, and he moves with a whole length of bodyguards. They move out and together, they move in together.

KABAS: Have you ever looked back at your sketches of him over the years to see how they might have changed based on how he's changed as a person?

CORNELL: Well if you go to my website, there are two pictures of Trump on it in the gallery—and those are really the only drawings I did of him until he became president. And then I did do some drawings of him from photographs for Bloomberg. I got commissioned to do a portrait of him for one of their magazine articles—him and Rudy Giuliani. What a pair. And I've drawn Rudy Giuliani many, many, many more times than Trump because he was the US attorney in New York for a bunch of years. I knew him from his youth and his toupee. I mean, he was never a pretty boy. Trump has that pretty boy stuff.

What's interesting about drawing him is his palette. It's very pink, and the yellow in his hair is whew yellow. And his eyes being light colored is still the darkest thing in his face. There’s no black anywhere. It just makes drawing him a challenge—like drawing Uma Thurman, who's just pale, pale, pale. Except that he's pinker and ruddier.

KABAS: You sketched him in the early eighties a couple of times. When was the first recent trial where you sketched him?

CORNELL: When he got arraigned for the Stormy Daniels thing. That was back in April of last year.

KABAS: And how many times have you sketched him since then?

CORNELL: Well, then we had the trial on the real estate fraud, and that went on for several weeks, and he showed up for a full week of it. Then he got kind of reprimanded by the judge, so he didn't come back for a while. He made spotty appearances when he felt like he wanted to capitalize on the moment. Essentially, he's been treating it like a campaign stop. I mean, we've all heard “It's a rigged prosecution.” Everybody's in collusion just to bring him down personally. And he never addresses the facts or what's been said. He lets his lawyers do the dirty work and then just shrugged it off when he did take the stand.

Portrait by Christine Cornell

KABAS: I'd love to hear just a little more generally about your job. Do you have any say in which trials you get? What's the assignment process?

CORNELL: I'm an independent and that has some pluses and some minuses, as you probably know. [Editor’s note: I definitely know.]

Sometimes I find it really damn hard to get into the courthouse even though I've been doing this for an obscenely long period of time—49 years. Everybody knows me, but I still have to jump through hoops. And I'm still actually trying to figure out “how do I get myself into a better position?” So, I have to rely on the kindness of my people who know me around the block.

Often, I do pick trials for myself. Last week was tricky because the E. Jean Carroll thing was starting, the Gilgo Beach guy was getting charged with a fourth murder, and Daniel Penny was in court. But I had a commitment from CNN for the first two days of Miss Carroll and I wasn't going to rock the boat. So that's all I was available to do, which I think disappointed some other people because when you have all the artists on one case, who are you gonna call for backup? If somebody wants to commit for a little stretch of time, I always appreciate that and honor it.

I was on the real estate fraud trial for almost every single dang day, even though it wasn't making top news every day. CBS was sending me, and that was wonderful. And then I’m thinking, “oh, it's going to be boring today. Why am I going here?” And then I'm going “Christine! It's a job! It's a commitment! Unbelievable! Go for it!”

KABAS: So it's media outlets that are directly hiring you to do the sketches?

CORNELL: Yes, mostly CNN, NBC and CBS.

KABAS: And so if there's a trial that you want to pursue, that you want to be in the courtroom, do you reach out to those media outlets and ask if they would put you on assignment?

CORNELL: Of course.

KABAS: I like demystifying these processes because I think so many people, including myself, have no idea what the actual process is. Going further back, how did you become a courtroom sketch artist? Like, how does one become that?

CORNELL: Well, it's somebody who loves to draw and do portraits and is very determined to get in and get the job done. It actually takes an incredible amount of determination and stamina because, as I said, sometimes I joke when I go to court, I have to dust off my “kick me” sign. Sometimes it's really hard, and anytime anybody gives you guff, you just have to like, do a little bow and say thank you. Because it's the only way you're gonna get them to help you get in there. You have to disarm them. You can't possibly come in there and say I'm entitled, and you also cannot walk away without getting the job done.

And so even if things really go south and you end up getting stuck in the overflow room—and during the pandemic, that did happen quite a bit. People on the video screen look like—I mean, take a look at your thumb and say, OK, who's that? There were no features and stuff. Then you do things like run around in the hallways during the breaks and eyeball those people who you're drawing and burn it into your brain so that you can go back and do a portrait of them from memory. Because they take your camera away, your phone away, when you walk in the building. So you have to be really enterprising sometimes.

Portrait by Christine Cornell

KABAS: You said that sometimes you have to deal with people giving you guff. What kind of guff do you get?

CORNELL: “Oh, there's no seats. You can't come in.” That's a starter. Or, “I got here first. How'd you get a better seat than me? Move.” There’s just unbelievable competitive efforts for everybody to get what they need.

During the real estate trial, they allocated like, five seats for the artists, but only three of them had a view. And we were lining up at 5:30 in the morning for a trial that starts at 10 a.m. And if you happen to not have hit it by number three, you were gonna have to come earlier tomorrow. And this is not a nice season for standing outside. There was a day last week when they had us outside for three hours and my fingers were so tingly and numb when I came in, I was going, “I'm hoping I warm up enough to draw.”

So I'm just saying it's not an easy job. There's nothing glamorous about this job. Yeah, it's great to have your drawings broadcast all over the planet. But when it comes to feet on the ground, it's trench work.

KABAS: Have you seen it change over the years?

CORNELL: Oh, it's changed. Once upon a time, before you could see the news at any hour of the day, before the internet, newscasts were five o'clock and 11 o'clock. Right? And every news organization covered trials—they blanketed them, gavel to gavel, from the beginning of the trial to the end of the trial. Now it's shrunk so much. Back in 1989 there were 18 of us, and now there's a handful of us. Literally. So, I mean, one hand. And we compete for whatever jobs there are, and the news organizations, because they have to cover so many news slots and so many different services and ways to get the news out there, they don't invest as much. And so the artist is almost like their last concern.

If they can get b-roll of somebody walking into a building or out of a building, it's perfectly adequate for them. They do not need the drawing. And so the work has shrunk, the number of days, the need to get more clients when you do work. It pits us against each other a bit, and, you know, we react to it in our different ways that are our personality. Me, I try to do it with as much grace as possible. I'm aware that news organizations can't just be loyal to one artist because there's often two stories. Or three stories. So they have to keep their little pool happy.

It’s really, honestly, one of the oddest things in the universe that I started doing this when I was 21 years old. And it just seemed to be a job that was—and it's not a job by any means. It's a hustle. But it really suits my temperament because I like people. I'm so interested in them. To me it's like candy to look at somebody and really try and get under their skin and check in on “how are they doing under these horrible circumstances?”

I'm completely sympathetic to them. Nobody ever ever wants to be on that side of the rail. Even Donald Trump. He's miserable right now.

Portrait by Christine Cornell

KABAS: I wanted to ask you about one sketch in particular. I’ve covered George Santos a lot in the past year, and there was one particularly memorable sketch you did of him in court last May. What was the process like of capturing him?

CORNELL: Well, I have to tell you, all of these hearings have never lasted more than 25 minute—maybe 20. So I am scrambling.

My take on the man is that the first day he looked frightened, the second day he was full of bravado. He was handshaking, all sorts of stuff. And then it became clear what this trial is hinging on [him being expelled from Congress.]

He's clownish at his essence. It's astonishing that our political system has such a low bar for what's required to be in a position of influence and power. I mean, it's embarrassing. But it's more of an indictment of the political system, in a way, that they let this clown get as far as he got. And nobody could agree with that more than him, I'm sure because, you know, [in his mind] what did he do wrong?

KABAS: So you have this really short amount of time to capture this very colorful character. And what is that experience like?

CORNELL: Well, with him in particular, he did always beat a little bit on me. I was the only artist in the room, and I was using binoculars, which of course is very obnoxious. It's only because he was about 40-50 ft away. So, I used them as minimally as I could.

I basically was just observing who he was, how he was. His posture was always the same: very straight back, hands folded in front of him. It was like he was auditioning to be a congressman. I've never seen anybody sit so upright with their hands folded in front of them and so conscious of how they appeared.

[I tell Cornell about this very funny exchange that happened between Santos and Martin Shkreli—who she’s also drawn—in regard to her portrait of Santos.]

CORNELL: There is an inaccurate quality to courtroom sketches. There's a reason for that. People do not pose for you. They're moving, right? And sometimes your position is really lousy. So you're looking at the back of their head trying to grab whatever you can grab, or you've got a whole bunch of people in between you and them and you're using your binoculars to try and peer in between shoulders and heads and things to get a face. And I mean, as I said, you've gotta get it. That's just the job.

Am I hard on my own case? I am. I mean, I do my very best to walk around and bore my eyes into people and try and memorize them so that I can draw them without being able to see them because I know that's the job.

You're making me wanna go back and look at my Shkreli drawings. But, you know, with Santos, it was pretty damn simple. I was in Shkreli for more days, more time. And I thought I tried to get him—I mean, I always just try to put people actually in the best light. Because, you know, somebody loves them. And it might as well be me. That's always my starting point.

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