The Human Eye vs The Camera
San Diego Union Tribune Article February 12, 2023
The new year marks 20 years since San Diego courtroom sketch artist Krentz Johnson began depicting legal scenes in many of the region’s biggest cases
BY ALEX RIGGINS
JAN. 2, 2023 6 AM PT
SAN DIEGO —
Years ago, if a young artist would have shown up to a San Diego courtroom on a day Krentz Johnson had been commissioned to sketch a hearing, the veteran artist would have viewed that person as her competition. Now, she would welcome the sight.
“It’s a dying art,” Johnson, 66, said of the craft she’s been honing since 2003. Johnson hopes that before her time sketching courtroom scenes is done, someone new will come along whom she can mentor and give the advice she never received — even if, she guesses, that person is more likely to use a digital tablet than the color pencils, graphite and paints she uses.
For 20 years Johnson has offered San Diegans a window into federal courtrooms where cameras are prohibited, producing renderings of the biggest court cases in the region. Those have included government corruption trials, the prosecution of a lost hunter who started the deadly 2003 Cedar fire and the long-running legal take down of the Arellano-Félix family that once controlled Tijuana-San Diego drug smuggling.
One floor expounds on the history of the craft — Johnson argues courtroom sketching has roots dating back hundreds of years, when artists depicted famous courtroom scenes such as Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo facing a Roman inquisition, or the Salem witch trials. Other floors showcase sketches from prominent local cases and famous national ones, such as the trials of O.J. Simpson, Woody Allen and Charles Manson. One floor is dedicated to sketched portraits of San Diego federal judges.
She has become an expert on the craft, and not just through her own experience.
Several years ago, after being asked to give a talk on the subject, she got interested in the history of courtroom sketching and put together a gallery. For years now it has adorned four floors of the red brick Edward J. Schwartz federal courthouse in downtown, filling enclaves near the elevators where phone bays used to stand.
Johnson picked up the medium after years of painting landscapes, seascapes and portraits. She’s had her share of blunders, laughs and unsettling moments.
There was the time before she got her first real gig, while practicing in a state court case, that a judge booted her from his courtroom for sketching the jury. Or the federal case when she wasn’t sure who in the room was on trial, so she sketched the person who looked like the “guiltiest guy in the room” — an FBI agent, not the defendant. Or the time during a cartel case years ago, when the wife of a Mexican drug lord hassled her each morning outside the courtroom.
One of her proudest moments was when the news program “60 Minutes” featured one of her sketches from the war crimes court-martial of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. One of her nerviest moments was sketching the parents of John T. Earnest, the Poway synagogue shooter, as they sat in the gallery behind him during his sentencing hearing.
“Even if it might have made them feel uncomfortable ... there are intense moments that need to be portrayed,” Johnson wrote in a short online autobiography. “I have to draw all these feelings going on. I have to take actions like this when it’s part of the story.”
Johnson believes divine intervention led her to courtroom sketching. In the early 2000s, after undergoing experimental treatments for the chronic fatigue syndrome that she had battled for some 30 years, she was feeling well enough to seek a part-time job. So she prayed to God, laying out all the specific requirements that would allow her to balance the job and the management of her illness.
Johnson said the “suggestion came immediately” to her mind: courtroom sketching. It was something she never would have thought of on her own, she said.
“When I was a younger artist, I didn’t even know that (courtroom sketching) could be an option for a career,” Johnson said. “I started very late in life.”
Johnson had wanted to be an artist since she was young, she said. She earned her fine arts degree in 1978 from San Diego State University and started exhibiting her work while still in college. After graduation she spent two stints living in New York, where she put on one-woman shows and exhibited in galleries.
But because of her illness, she gave up her craft in the mid-1980s and didn’t make any art for more than 10 years. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that she started painting again, just a few brushstrokes each day, while living part time with her then-husband in Baja California. But it was enough to get a solo show in two Mexican cities, plus exhibits in other small galleries.
It was in Mexico where she took on the artist name she uses now, feeling the need to obscure her gender in a place where she believed that was necessary to succeed. Krentz is her maiden name and Johnson was her husband’s last name.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. authorities ramped up inspections at the border, and crossing regularly became too much of a hassle. That meant no more galleries and shows in Baja California, and the sales she’d been earning there dried up. It was during that period that she prayed and received her answer. Soon, she was practicing her sketching regularly at state court in El Cajon and downtown San Diego.
A sketch from the first case Johnson was paid to cover is part of her exhibition in the federal courthouse. It was a hearing for Kimberly Bailey, who was convicted of hiring two men to kidnap, torture and kill her lover in Tijuana.
Johnson said “a lot of people can sketch ... (but) what’s hard is the business.” In one section of her gallery, she writes that the fee an artist can charge for a sketch “increases if national markets pick it up, and quadruples if a celebrity is involved.”
Johnson is a freelancer, mostly selling her sketches to local TV news stations. The Union-Tribune has also previously contracted with Johnson.
Courtroom sketch artists can use any style they want, meaning some sketches look ultra realistic while others take on a more cartoon-like quality. Johnson’s style is slightly abstract, but she appreciates every style. Johnson said she can recognize most artists’ sketches without seeing their signature.
One of the sketches in the courthouse exhibition is the notorious drawing of former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, made by New York artist Jane Rosenberg. The sketch drew widespread criticism online from those who thought it looked nothing like Brady, or robbed him of his famous good looks.
Johnson described the sketch as “amazing” and “very good,” pointing out all the details Rosenberg had captured in the few minutes she had to make the sketch. “She wasn’t awed by him,” Johnson said.
She also looked at it from the business side: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
Rosenberg was also the artist who gained notoriety when she sketched Jeffrey Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell sketching her during trial, where Maxwell was ultimately convicted of conspiring with Epstein to sexually abuse multiple teenage girls.
Apparently defendants sketching the sketch artists is not an uncommon occurrence: Longtime courtroom artist Betty Wells told Johnson in a 2017 interview that John Ehrlichman, a former Richard Nixon aide who went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, sketched her during his trial.
Johnson said the 1960s and 1970s, when cameras were prohibited from most state courts, was the “golden era” of courtroom sketching. A 1987 sketch by Christine Cornell featured in Johnson’s gallery depicts six artists sitting together in a New York courtroom making renderings of a trial.
Those days are long gone, but Johnson still loves the craft. As part of her gallery, she writes “An artist can freeze a moment to show emphasis ... Most artists will say a camera in court lacks this artful human interpretation — or pathos.”
And she embraces the role she and other artists play in bridging the divide between the rigid legal system and the creative art world — made possible, she points out, by the First Amendment.
--San Diego Union Tribune JAN. 2, 2023