Arriving at court with soft black charcoal, pastels, and sheets of art paper, Jane Flavell Collins became the eyes for those who would never sit close to some of her era’s most notorious criminals.
As a courtroom artist whose work appeared on TV and in newspapers, she sketched a rogue’s gallery of images that included James “Whitey” Bulger’s bald head and shoe bomber Richard Reid’s cascading hair. Sometimes she had hours to work, other times just minutes.
“Many people can draw,” she told the Globe. “It’s just a matter of knowing what you have to get.”
An award-winning artist who studied in Florence, Italy, Mrs. Collins had been coping with heart ailments and other health issues when she died Sunday. She was 84 and had lived in Duxbury for many years.
She also drew portraits of people who never sat in a defendant’s chair, and the objects of her landscape paintings were as gentle and soothing as the subjects of her courtroom sketches were dangerous and threatening.
Ultimately, though, a piece of art was a piece of art, and she was drawn to details about everyone she drew.
Bulger, for example, had “wonderful even features and a perfectly shaped head,” she told the Globe in 2013, during the gangster’s federal court trial.
A federal courthouse wasn’t where she thought she’d ply her trade when, in her early 20s, she spent a year living in Villa Schifanoia in Tuscany, Italy, and in Florence while studying art at Pope Pius XII Institute.
“Never in a million years did I think my art would lead me in this direction,” she told the Globe in 2018.
Still, while a college student, she already was honing her skills at swiftly sketching portraits. During summers, she made extra money on Cape Cod capturing the likenesses of tourists.
“Even as a young art student, I liked drawing portraits,” she told the Duxbury Clipper last June. “I worked in Hyannis drawing quick portraits for about $2 apiece back then.”
Her career stretched from before cameras were allowed in any courtroom to her work last year doing sketches while attending hearings via Zoom, such as when actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, were sentenced in the college admissions scandal.
“It changed so completely, I couldn’t get over it,” she told the Clipper of the ways the pandemic had affected her work.
“I was consulted by a TV station to use Zoom to cover when they pled guilty,” she said. “I had Zoom, but I wasn’t too good at it. It was going to happen at 11:30 a.m., so a friend came in and helped me make sure I could do it. In the federal court, they were allowing 300 Zoom people, and they helped me since I was so slow getting it together, getting ready. They put my name in for me so I’d make sure I’d have one of the 300 spaces. I sat in my kitchen and drew this picture. That was the most remarkable change I could ever describe.”
Born in 1937 in Rockland, Jane Flavell was the youngest of three siblings. Her father, Paul Flavell, was a civil engineer, and her mother, Anne O’Brien Flavell, was a stay-at-home mother.
Mrs. Collins graduated from Rockland High School, where she was among the Gold Key winners in the Globe’s annual school art competition. Her work was displayed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and was automatically entered into a national competition in Pittsburgh. In later years, she shared and won New England Emmys for her courtroom work.
Her brother, John Flavell of Palo Alto, Calif., is a Stanford University professor emeritus and a founder of social cognitive developmental psychology. Her sister, Constance Flavell Pratt, who died in 2016, was a well-known portrait painter who also did courtroom sketches.
In 1963, Mrs. Collins told the Globe that she “had, perhaps, an unusual stimulus for a career in art by winning an oratorical contest at Rockland High.”
Winning that contest provided a Cardinal Francis Spellman-financed scholarship to the Massachusetts College of Art, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
A subsequent scholarship, also associated with Spellman, allowed Mrs. Collins to receive a master’s in fine arts from Villa Schifanoia in Italy.
She met Peter Collins back home, when he was part of an ensemble performing at The Rathskeller in Boston. “My dad was playing a jazz gig,” said their oldest son, Peter of Glen Ridge, N.J.
They married in 1962. Mr. Collins who had worked in various aspects of the shoe business, along with singing and playing in jazz groups, died in 2019.
His work brought them to live in Maine at different points, and they had a vacation home in the Pemaquid part of Bristol, Maine.
Mrs. Collins “was one of the kindest individuals that you’re ever going to want to meet,” said her son Stephen of Portsmouth, N.H.
His brother Neil of Cumberland Foreside, Maine, recalled that, even in her later years, their mother “worked with a painting group so she could have some sort of peer review. Here was someone who had been doing this for 70 years, and she was still trying to get better.
Examples of Mrs. Collins’s landscape paintings are on her website, as are her commissioned portraits — a skill she had refined for decades.
Along with her portraits of tourists on the Cape, where she strategically placed rocks to keep her paper and art supplies from blowing away, she sketched portraits of children in a downtown Boston department store in the early 1960s.
“I stuck out my tongue, crossed my eyes, and wore out toys trying to get children to look steadily at me,” she recalled in the 1963 interview.
Her courtroom sketching presented different challenges as she worked for Channels 4, 7, and 25. Among her concerns was finding a place to sit, and her first trial assignment was particularly memorable.
“I showed up with a huge wooden case with all my supplies, lugging and banging it down the courtroom aisle. When I sat down, I realized I couldn’t see the defendant on the stand. I decided to move to an empty chair in the middle of the courtroom,” she told the Globe in 2018
“I finally settled down again — my face was bright red by this point — and prepared to open my art supplies,” she added. “That’s when a burly court officer leaned over me and said, ‘Madam, that is the defendant’s chair!’ Head down, I picked [up] my stuff and went to the back of the room. It wasn’t the most fortuitous start to a career that has lasted decades.”
A memorial gathering will be announced for Mrs. Collins, who in addition to her three sons and brother leaves six grandchildren.
She told the Clipper that when it came to courtroom sketches, “I’m happy when I am able to do it well. I appreciate meeting the people that I do. The position is very interesting as well as challenging. I do find that I am rather sad at the end of any trial because it means that there is always a loser.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.