The Last of the Court Artists
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Fay Plamka wheels her $20 Dimmeys suitcase into Courtroom 1 of the Melbourne Magistrates Court and settles herself near the dock. As the judge processes petty charges and sentences – a milk bar owner’s restraining order against a teenager; driving without a licence for the third time and a string of unpaid fines – Plamka unpacks. Her curly white hair bobbing, she piles the seat beside her with pencil cases, drawing pads, a small Tupperware container with a sharpener and pencil shavings inside. She rummages for a small black sketchbook and opens it up to a sketch of a woman half hidden by a computer monitor. Looking across the court at the young female clerk sitting beneath the judge, Plamka fleshes the sketch out with a yellow pencil on the page and a brown pencil in her mouth. A small smile slips across the clerk’s face. “She’s used to me,” Plamka whispers. A court artist for nearly ten years, Plamka files her drawings to the ABC and Channel 7, to be filmed for the evening news. Today she is waiting for a woman by the name of Josina Pitt to appear in the dock. It could be an hour before she arrives, so Plamka passes the time by drawing others.
“It’s so rare to finish a portrait in this job,” she tells me in the court’s foyer, letting me turn the pages of her sketchbook. “Often you only get five or ten minutes to capture someone’s likeness before they’re taken away. You have to keep your eye on the shape of the skull. It’s sort of like algebra, all proportions and angles.” Often, Plamka only has time to sketch the bone structure and note the colours for filling in later.
The pages of Plamka’s personal sketchbook remind me of anatomical drawings and dissections. A plaid shirt or the eyes of a subject are brought to the surface, eerily lifelike, boldly coloured in and shadowed, with a quick, sure sketch beneath. Next to each subject, Plamka writes her own captions – one man, she notes, charged with child abuse, wears his “pants at half-mast. Not a good look.”
In her sixties, Plamka considers herself one of the last court artists. “There are about a dozen of us in Australia, but it’s a dying art. I give court artists three, four more years, and then cameras will be allowed in.”
Cameras have been allowed in Australian courts before. In 1981, television cameras were permitted for the first time to broadcast live the first coronial inquiry’s decision about the death of Azaria Chamberlain. In 1995, Justice Teague approved a solitary news camera to film the sentencing of Nathan Avent, convicted of killing a 10-year-old boy with an axe, as did Justice Cummins in 2007, when triple murderer Peter Dupas was handed a third life jail term for the murder of a young woman as she tended her grandmother’s grave. Again in 2007, photographers were allowed in Victoria’s County Court after judicial authorities reasoned that the man on trial, underworld figure turned celebrity criminal Carl Williams, was of significant public interest.
So, what’s the problem? Why worry about letting cameras into court, especially when what we’re asking court artists to do is capture a likeness?
In the case of Nathan Avent, some say the televising of his sentence backfired. In the Victorian Court of Appeal, Avent’s lawyers argued that the judge imposed an overly harsh sentence due to the camera’s presence. The Court of Appeal disagreed, but allowed that it was a possibility. Avent’s sentence was shortened by three years. This type of appeal – that the presence of cameras has overwhelmed or compelled judges (or defendants) to act in a certain way – has become common and necessary in the United States.
Take the televised trial of former footballer OJ Simpson, charged with the murders of his ex-wife and her lover in 1995. The courtroom drama took an absurd 9 months, most likely for entertainment’s sake, while the presiding judge and two attorneys became celebrities (the prosecuting attorney went on to become a reporter for Entertainment Tonight). On the other hand, the trio of Paradise Lost documentaries, which covered the outlandish trials and Salem-esque witch-hunt of three teenagers in West Memphis, was responsible for raising awareness of their flawed imprisonment.
Could court artists ever wield such power? No, probably not. And yet there is something to be said for their subtlety. Sure, they have to scrutinise their subjects, some of whom, in return, respond. Plamka recalls one man sentenced to life for paedophilia who kept striking poses for the artists. But cameras risk adding a whole new element of performance and persona, quite possibly at the expense of something more than just the charm and skill of portraiture. Will an element of truth, of authenticity, be compromised?
The court is starting to fill with more people. The other two court artists have set up alongside Plamka. Then the reporters enter. Plamka looks at them wonderingly. “We must be getting close. Reporters know things that no one else seems to know. They’ll always arrive just on time.” Opening an A3 sketchpad on her lap, Plamka steadies her brown pencil. “I try not to use lead pencil,” she tells me. “I use brown instead, so it’s not dark and gloomy by default. I don’t like making people look like criminals, because there is a lot of humanity in here. People usually just look like people.”
The door to the dock clicks open and guards lead in Josina Pitt, a 67-year-old woman in a grey sweatshirt. She is weeping and wrapping her arms around herself. Last night she was arrested at her Craigieburn home as ambulance workers tried in vain to revive her partner. She stands accused of stabbing him to death. I hear weeping behind us, and turn to see her family. Pitt also notices and leans towards them, her fingers splayed in a weird distraught wave, which makes them weep more.
Mesmerised, I barely look at what Plamka is doing. But in less than 10 minutes, when the door clicks shut behind Pitt and her family are left staring at the empty dock, I look down at Plamka’s drawing pad and there she is. The bone structure, yes, but also the crumpled hopelessness of a woman in serious trouble.