FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Surrounded by images of some of the most infamous murderers, mobsters and white-collar crooks in New York City, Elizabeth Williams flashed a bright smile.
“It’s amazing to see it all here,” said Williams, a courtroom artist for more than 30 years, as she stood amid a collection of her illustrations. “This is really a slice of American history, from a perspective that many people never get to experience.”
Several of Williams' sketches, along with the works of four other illustrators, are now on display in an exhibit at the World Trade Art Gallery that chronicles years of courthouse drama — including the headline-grabbing trials of murderer Charles Manson, scam artist Bernie Madoff and media mogul Martha Stewart.
The exhibit celebrates the release of Williams’ book, “The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art," which includes 140 images from the five artists who are featured in the exhibit, and gives a bit of history and a peek behind the scenes in the courtroom.
“Sometimes cameras aren’t allowed in the courtroom, and we’re the only ones there to quickly capture that moment,” said Williams, a longtime Financial District resident. “That image can really end up carrying a lot of meaning.”
Williams said one of the most memorable cases she covered was Madoff's.
“I just remember getting this call, saying I had to get to court because a man had been arrested for stealing $20 billion — and my mouth just dropped,” Williams said.
“I’ll always remember that first day we saw him in court, he was wearing a purple tie — no one wears a purple tie in court — and he looked so sheepish and tried to smile at me, and I just thought, 'Yeah right dude, you’re not getting a smile from me.'"
“That case was filled with so much drama, so many people who’d lost everything, it was intense,” she added.
Williams, who studied at Parsons School of Design, got into the courtroom art world after trying her luck as a fashion illustrator in Hollywood.
“I did sketches for designers like Bob Mackie, but I just wasn’t making enough money,” she said. “A teacher suggested I try it, then I had some luck, meeting one of the best illustrators, Bill Robles, and he helped me get my career off the ground.”
Even though her career took a different turn, Williams said her years in court have been fascinating.
"It's always a challenge, and you're capturing all these different personalities and characters — and sometimes, an important piece of history," she said.
The new exhibit showcases 70 drawings, from Williams as well as Howard Brodie, a deceased artist who sketched infamous cases including Manson's, and Aggie Kenny, who spent years sketching trials in Supreme Court, where cameras are still not allowed. Work from Bill Robles and Richard Tomlinson is featured as well.
The exhibit opens April 22 and will run through May 2 at the World Trade Art Gallery, 74 Trinity Place. The gallery is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Original drawings are being sold for $3,000 to $4,000, while prints of the works can be bought for $200 to $500.