Mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger had handsome facial features and a bald head that was difficult to draw. Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was clad in an easily depicted orange prison jumpsuit. Shoe bomber Richard Reid had long arms that he waved at the judge. These are the recollections of longtime courtroom artist Jane Collins of Duxbury. She has spent hours in Boston federal court, capturing the drama of notable trials where cameras are forbidden. Her sketches of notorious criminals and their gestures and interactions are flashed on local and national TV news. Often, she only has seconds to capture an incident that makes headlines around the country, like when Bulger’s sidekick, Kevin Weeks, flashed a machine gun on the stand.
“I hardly know what a gun like that looks like, and I had to keep a mental image in my mind and then fill in the details later and go with it,” says Collins, who draws with pastels on 18-by-24-inch pieces of gray paper. She sketches the outlines with soft black charcoal that’s easy to rub out and then layers in the colors and highlights. Her media pass gives her a front-row seat, and over the years, she’s figured out that she can use a small stool to brace her paper, which is mounted to a piece of foam board. Her pastels are stored in a plastic bin and she keeps a wet towel to wipe the pastel dust off her hand.
Collins can finish a drawing in minutes or work on it for hours till the court session adjourns. “I try to show [the] entire courtroom at the beginning, but then I can do various aspects of what’s happening, such as the lawyers’ opening, closing arguments, or each individual witness,” she says.
When the illustrations are ready to be released to the media, Collins tapes them to a wall, either outside or inside the courtroom. Reporters and photographers then take photos of the drawings. Collins invoices them later and gets paid what she calls barely a “living wage.”
The sporadic nature of her work — she only gets called for high-visibility trials — means that she might be busy for weeks and then idle for months. Still, Collins, who graduated from Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design and received a scholarship to study in Florence, Italy, did not expect to use her art degree in this fashion. “Never in a million years did I think my art would lead me in this direction,” she says.
Collins spoke to the Globe about her courtroom experiences.
“I’ve always done very realistic portraits. After marriage and a family, I met someone who gave me the name of a TV news director. I showed him sketches that I’d done, copied from a news magazine. He gave me a shot and called me to go to court in Boston. 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. I finally settled down again — my face was bright red by this point — and prepared to open my art supplies. 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.
“I could not possibly guess how many hours I’ve been in court. Courtroom artists are there to satisfy the need for the public to see what went on. Cameras, especially years ago, caused witnesses to be fearful, show off, or become uncomfortable. In 1980, Massachusetts decided to allow quiet and inconspicuous cameras in the state courts but they are not allowed in any federal courts yet. There’s been great pressure from the broadcast industry to change that, but I think drawings are more interesting by a long shot and show more emotion.
“The number of courtroom artists has declined — it’s a small industry and most of us know each other. When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was in court for Deflategate, there was much publicity about a supposedly poorly done drawing of him. I felt very sorry for the artist because it was very unfortunate for her — she was probably rushing to complete it and the face might have been a little distorted. Her name was Jane as well, and a friend of mine called me and said, ‘Oh Jane, I’m so sorry, I heard you’re in the news.’ I said, ‘That wasn’t me, it was another Jane.’ The artist, Jane Rosenberg, later posted another portrait that captured Brady’s overall likeness quite well.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at email@example.com.