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Opinion | ‘Accordion Hands’ and ‘Caterpillar Eyebrows’: Trump Meets the Female Gaze

Opinion | ‘Accordion Hands’ and ‘Caterpillar Eyebrows’: Trump Meets the Female Gaze

When Donald Trump is relaxed — or as relaxed as someone can be while on trial for 34 felony counts of falsifying business records — you can see his socks. They are a thin black material, probably cashmere, and you get a glimpse of them only when he leans back in his chair, calves visible over the elastic seam.

I know this because of Isabelle Brourman, a fine artist who has been sketching the theatrics of Mr. Trump’s hush-money trial from the second row of the courtroom, clad in eye-catching outfits she pairs with the day’s testimony. Ms. Brourman lives for these little moments — the kind of details that can reduce even a swaggering former president to a mere mortal: one whose skin gets flushed when he is tense, bringing out an orangy brown on his forehead, and whose lips, pursed sourly when he is angry, cast a shadow over his chin.

She takes it all in, and all of it, in turn, informs her work, which has been appearing in New York magazine. But rather than capturing key moments or producing realistic renderings of the day’s events, Ms. Brourman’s expressive images cut across space and time. She uses watercolors, colored pencils, graphite, glitter pens; sometimes she tweezes for texture or scrawls words in corners. In her portraits of Mr. Trump, he is both frenetic and hulking; her Stormy Daniels, shaded with blues and purples, looks emotionally bruised.

“The other artists, they are so professional,” she told me recently. “I would say I’m unprofessional, gladly.”

I got to know Ms. Brourman because, while much of the rest of the country has been consumed by the Trump trial itself, I’ve spent the past few months fascinated by the world of the courtroom artists drawing the Trump trial — a world she both is and isn’t a part of.

Ms. Brourman, 30, has spent the past year in an uneasy coexistence with three veteran artists who sit in the courtroom’s front row, churning out images for Reuters, CNN and The Associated Press, which are then reproduced around the world, as they have for more than four decades. These artists are something of a legend in the world of New York courts: three women well over 50, among the last practitioners of a dying craft, whose perspectives are suddenly very important. They are the public’s eyes on the most important political trial in American history, in a rare space where cameras are not allowed.

Ms. Brourman calls these women “the sketch ladies,” and they exist because of a legal relic that largely forbids cameras in New York and federal courts. The judge in this case has made a slight exception, allowing a small group of photographers to briefly capture Mr. Trump at the start of each day — during which he poses and puts on a reliable scowl. Which leaves the rawer, unscripted moments entirely up to the artists.

I first found myself seated behind the sketch ladies during the E. Jean Carroll sexual assault and defamation trials, and I was mesmerized by watching them work. Clad in dark-rimmed glasses and drapey scarves, their fingers stained in chalk, the women seemed at odds with the stiffness of the room; at times their scratching on paper was the only sound during moments so tense, I held my breath.

I watched Christine Cornell, 69, capture the contours of Mr. Trump’s hair with a pale yellow pastel, giving it a lemon meringue swoop. I saw Jane Rosenberg, 73, use tiny binoculars to peer at the side of his face, etching deep shadows into his cheeks. Elizabeth Williams, who wouldn’t tell me her age beyond saying she’s the youngest of the trio, scribbled with an ink pen as Ms. Carroll tearfully testified, producing an image that reminded me a bit of Munch’s “The Scream.”

There was something intriguing about the fact that the public was watching the Carroll trial — a trial about sexual violence, misogyny and power — solely through the eyes of older women. Could they, I wondered, see themselves in her, in a way that imbued their sketches of Ms. Carroll with just a touch more resolve? Was it just me, or did that Trump sketch look a little sneery?

Then came the hush-money trial. One memorable sketch, by Ms. Rosenberg, captured during Mr. Trump’s arraignment, ran on the cover of The New Yorker — the first time a courtroom drawing has appeared there. Some compared Ms. Rosenberg’s Trump to a gargoyle; others to the Grinch. Was his exaggerated pastel pout some kind of statement?

Each of the women is emphatic: No. Their job is to draw what they see. No editorializing, no hidden messages, just the facts, in ink and chalk.

In fact, they say drawing Mr. Trump is really not so different from any other day: They’ve sketched murderers, rapists, Mafiosi, even Mr. Trump before, when he was in court in the 1980s for a sports antitrust case. (He owned a football team in New Jersey.) Ms. Rosenberg was inches away from Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary, on trial for terrorism, when he lunged at the judge and had to be dragged away by guards. Ms. Cornell was asked on a date while drawing a different terrorist, the one convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. (She declined.) The women have been summoned to fix hairlines, smooth wrinkles, “make me look sexy,” as Donald Trump Jr. requested in his father’s civil fraud trial.

“It’s a weird life,” Ms. Cornell said, when I visited her at home in New Jersey.

The next time I saw Ms. Cornell was in the ladies’ room on the 15th floor of the New York State Supreme Court building in Lower Manhattan, where she had propped an image of Ms. Daniels on the radiator, remarking she had made her “too pretty.” This, I learned, is where she and the other artists flee during breaks to photograph their sketches — she on the radiator, Ms. Rosenberg on the trash bin.

The women work at a frantic pace, producing sometimes six or seven sketches a day, often with just minutes to nail each one, and under immense pressure not to miss any of the critical moments. None of this lends itself to particularly deep reflection, which isn’t really the point of the job, anyway.

Yet there is also inevitably a level of interpretation required: depicting facial expressions, at times reading lips, deciding which moments to zero in on, or not — like Mr. Trump yawning at the start of court. “I was a little bit hesitant,” Ms. Rosenberg told me. “I thought, ‘That’s a little nasty, maybe impolite.’ But I drew it.”

All of these are little acts of subjectivity, small decisions that contribute to how we understand the dynamics of a place that can feel as sensational at times as it does mundane.

And even the most impartial artist makes choices. Say, to emphasize Mr. Trump’s “accordion hands,” as Ms. Williams does, or his “caterpillar” eyebrows, which Ms. Cornell loves to draw. Ms. Rosenberg’s Trump tends to be angular and scowly, while Ms. Williams’s is more cartoonlike and befuddled.

But if the sketch ladies try to play down the significance of these choices, Ms. Brourman plays them up. She makes no pretense of objectivity, and her interest in the courtroom stems from something personal: her own lawsuit against a former star college professor, whom she accused of sexual assault.

That experience led her to the defamation trial that pitted Johnny Depp against Amber Heard, where she modeled herself on a professional courtroom artist she met there in order to finagle a seat. Next she drew the actor Danny Masterson’s rape sentencing, then Ms. Carroll’s trial and now Mr. Trump’s. This is high art for her, the kind she’d like in a gallery or a museum, but it is also catharsis, even healing. The professor in her case, she said, shared a lot of characteristics with Mr. Trump.

Ms. Brourman’s foray into courtroom sketching may be temporary, but she has quickly recognized that there are concurrent dynamics at play in any trial. There’s the main performance, or what’s done for the jury. Then there are sideshows, which the artists have a magnified view of, sometimes literally. (Ms. Brourman told me that when the former Trump aide Hope Hicks broke down crying on the stand, she was using her binoculars to study the face of one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers. She watched him mouth to his client, “It’s good.”)

Finally, there is interpretation. Ms. Brourman described watching Ms. Daniels walk out of the courtroom after her testimony and how just before she turned to exit through a side door — and within clear view of Mr. Trump — she raised her chin ever so slightly. “I was like, ‘Damn, I know what that is. That’s pride,’” she said, standing up in the coffee shop where we met to mimic the motion. She was not bearing witness so much as ascribing meaning, the kind of thing that is critical to her work and antithetical to the other artists’.

This sense of court as theater, and the attention Ms. Brourman’s approach has garnered her, has not always sat well with her colleagues. They were dubious of her at first, excluding her from their negotiations for seats in the front row. But relations, like the courtroom itself — which Mr. Trump complained was “freezing” early on — have slowly warmed up. “She brings a different perspective,” said Ms. Cornell.

I’d wondered if that perspective had made them reflect any more about their own. Was it possible to be women in their line of work, one that has seen so many men on trial for doing many bad things to women, and not bring themselves into it even slightly?

“I think we are so focused on trying to get these drawings down and done,” Ms. Williams began, “that our personal female view is like …” She trailed off.

“Well, the men aren’t around anymore, so I can’t compare our art,” said Ms. Cornell. (Others, however, can and have. During Mr. Trump’s arraignment in Miami last year, media outlets juxtaposed the drawings of Ms. Rosenberg and Ms. Williams with those of Bill Hennessy, another veteran artist, whose sketches of Mr. Trump some found too flattering.)

“He’s a third rail,” said Ms. Williams. “Everybody’s got an opinion.”

Except, apparently, the women drawing him.

But there’s something refreshing about that, too. The world is often male by default; politics and the law even more so. There is something unique, even fun, in knowing that this little corner of the universe — temporarily elevated to new heights of importance — has been so thoroughly taken over by the female gaze that the women themselves don’t even notice.


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