Johnson’s tall and blonde with a Bluetooth headset behind one ear and a press pass dangling from her neck. It’s been a busy few weeks for the artist, who says that, normally, there’s not nearly enough work for her and Greg High, her only competitor in the San Diego courtroom-sketch-artist market.
“In a few minutes,” Johnson says, “I’ll be animating like a rabbit.”
She’s early enough to score a seat at the front of the gallery in Courtroom F, where most of the day’s arraignments are taking place. She begins by sketching the room’s details—the flag in the corner, the U.S. seal on the wall, the judge’s bench and even the judge himself, who has yet to enter the room.
“It’s Judge [William] Gallo,” she says. “I already kind of know what he looks like.”
The first defendants who enter the courtroom aren’t the Somali men Johnson’s been assigned by the local NBC affiliate to sketch. They’re two Marines charged with robbery, and she’s drawn them before. She uses them as models for the Somalis, quickly outlining their bodies and jumpsuits. At arraignments, she sometimes only has a few minutes with her subjects, so pre-sketching is essential.
“Sometimes, if I over-draw, I’m in trouble,” she says of her preliminary-drawing practice. “I’ve had to give a few defendants quick sex-change operations.”
The Somalis enter the courtroom, and Johnson’s hand moves in a flurry, stopping only when she needs to blow the excess pastel chalk off the paper. After about five minutes, it’s over and the defendants are escorted out. She takes a few moments to fill in some details, then it’s out to the plaza in front of the courthouse, where she hopes to make a few extra sales.
She sets the sketch on an easel. A Channel 8 camera man looks it over, then asks how much she wants. He makes a call to his producer, who says the station doesn’t need it. Johnson has better luck with a CNN crew from Los Angeles.
“I have to strike while the iron’s hot,” she says between sales pitches. “It gets to be yesterday’s news pretty quick.”
Johnson got into the sketch-artist game relatively late in life. She was recovering from a decade-long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and looking to get back into some part-time work. She prayed, she says, and heard the words “courtroom sketch artist.” She knows her prayer story makes people skeptical, but she swears she never would have thought of something so random on her own.
Johnson’s background is in fine art. She got her art degree from San Diego State University and, for a short time, was one of the many artists who flooded into Downtown San Diego in the early ’80s to open a studio and gallery. Later, she worked in New York and Baja California, painting and selling landscapes. Occasionally, she worked fairs, sketching children’s portraits.
“I think that’s how I got such a quick hand,” she says.
It wasn’t until 2002, at age 45, that Johnson decided to enter her first courtroom. She swung by a few arraignments in El Cajon, then decided to sit in on the murder trial of David Westerfield. The judge had decided to let cameras into the courtroom—something Johnson thinks is a bad idea because of the strong influence of the press and cameras on the judicial system—so she was just there to learn.
Johnson quickly figured out the setup of a courtroom. She spent time at the law library, learning how to decipher criminal codes (Johnson looks at cases on the court calendar and, if she sees codes for things like murder or child pornography, she’ll cold-call news organizations to see if they might want her to cover it). She learned courtroom etiquette by getting kicked out a few times for doing things like sketching the jury when the judge said not to. In a murder case involving a dismembered body, she sketched a piece of evidence—a severed hand laying on a road—and discovered that she has an iron stomach. And she learned right away that drawing was stressful, but fun; the hard part of being a courtroom sketch artist, she says, is making contacts.
Johnson’s first sale was a fluke. She was sketching a strange case involving a wife accused of killing her husband, and 10News had been subpoenaed for the trial. During a break, she stood up and dropped her things. One of her cards nearly landed in the lap of 10News managing editor J.W. August. He’s still one of her clients today.
By 2 p.m., Johnson’s competition is on the scene. He’s there to sketch the drug-tunnel case, so, out of respect and because no client has assigned her to do it, she stays out of the courtroom. Johnson says that in Los Angles, there are so many courtroom sketch artists that they had to start an official union. The real money is in bigger cities like L.A. and New York City, she says, because you have famous defendants like Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart. A high-profile trial sketch could be sold to a collector or other buyer for upwards of $9,000. Sometimes a lawyer or juror in San Diego will want to buy a sketch from Johnson, but she’s not selling them for that kind of cash.
But the money isn’t why Johnson does it.
“It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had,” she says. “I painted on the beaches of Mexico, and this is better. There’s just a lot of human drama going on. Everything’s exciting. You get to see justice at work, you get to see the best and the worst in people, and it’s really kind of like humanity on showcase, and it’s cool to watch everything that way.”