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Opinion

Op-Ed: A courtroom artist captures what cameras can’t at the Manafort trial

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Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, is currently on trial for bank and tax fraud.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

On Thursday, Arthur Lien — who uses the handle @courtartist — tweeted, “Melinda James was an impressive witness today.”

Lien was spot-on. James, a mortgage assistant at Citizens Bank, had just given testimony in the bank and tax fraud trial of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager. While being questioned by Assistant U.S. Atty. Uzo Asonye, she told jurors that Manafort had lied to her about two of his properties. He claimed his daughter lived in one; really, he used Airbnb to rent it out. He said he owned another place outright. In fact, he had a mortgage on it.

Summaries of this testimony appeared far and wide in reporting on the highly publicized trial. Analysts suggested that it showed the jury the relentlessness of Manafort’s lies.

But Lien is not a legal analyst. He’s the courtroom artist assigned to represent the Manafort trial because cameras are banned.

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Let’s get one thing out of the way: Art Lien has a treasure of a name. If Manafort collected art as he collected ostrich jackets and over-leveraged real estate, wouldn’t there be an “art lien” on it by now?

But Lien’s name is not his only virtue. A courtroom artist since 1976, Lien is now best known for his work in the Supreme Court, where cameras are likewise forbidden. He’s at the top of his courtroom-artist game. And he’s doing a public service.

Lien repeatedly captures Manafort at his least self-conscious. He’s not squirming, which would imply he believes that he has a chance of escape.

Lien’s sensuous and slightly wry pictures accompany almost every story about the trial, and they are plastered all over cable news. His choice of whom to depict, and how to depict them, helps frame the news. His commitment to painting seeming peripheral characters, including court employees, is moving. It’s only during camera-free trials like this one that consumers of media are treated to — and must rely on — so much traditional visual art.

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To render a portrait of James on the stand, Lien had to study her closely.

Courtroom artists take about 10 minutes with their sketches, which eventually get brought to life, sometimes quite vividly, with watercolors. Lien uses a graphite pencil, a tiny notepad and a modest box of watercolors. Others, such as Christine Cornell, who sketches celebrity trials, use pastels.

Lien’s vignette of James shows her on the stand being questioned by Asonye, while a bunch of men sit by, including the eccentric judge, T.S. Ellis III, who earlier in the day apologized to member of the prosecution for snapping at them in front of the jury. Lien’s image is striking. Ellis’ head is bowed over some papers, almost penitent. Asonye’s arm is outstretched, pointing his fingers at James. The j’accuse posture is odd since she’s a government witness.

Special prosecutor Uzo Asonye questions CitizensBank loan officer Melinda James
Prosecutor Uzo Asonye questions CitizensBank loan officer Melinda James
(Art Lien)

But James looks impressive indeed. She appears in an almost perfect profile. It’s just her head and left shoulder; the rest of her body is submerged in the witness box. She has a steady, open gaze and a stunning square jaw. She is speaking. A white binder with her name in capital letters on it obscures a bare shoulder and bare upper arm; we can see a single black spaghetti strap.

The men in the foreground wear dark suits. If Lien’s sketch were a work of imagination and not reportage, the contrast between their armor and James’ exposure might be played as a power imbalance. That’s not how it comes across here.

Instead, James looks as though she’s dressed entirely for her comfort, and indifferent to everyone else’s. It’s August. We’ve been told that the government’s most notorious witness, Manafort’s former running buddy Rick Gates, perspired the week away. Even Asonye, in Lien’s picture, shines with sweat. James is plainly not making their mistake.

Her short hair is combed hard away from her face, with not a strand touching her face. This is the holy grail of August hairstyles.

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Looking closer, because the sketch invites it: James’ eyes are maybe a tiny bit fatigued. Her graceful physicality, that jaw, her bearing — this is coming easily to her, but it also seems as though she’s telling a simple, honest story that she’s told a dozen times before, and she’s getting tired of repeating it.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

Ever since 2015, when the freshly leaked Panama Papers exposed decades of global fraud and tax evasion by the rich, I’ve wanted a hard look at the greedy high-flyers who slip the knot of sanctions and taxes. Smug Manafort, greedy high-flyer par excellence, is accused of disguising more than $30 million in income earned overseas, funneling it through offshore accounts, lying to banks and evading taxes.

If I’m honest, I’ve wanted to see him squirm.

Photographs and film of Manafort can be misleading. He’s posey. He seems to whistle in the dark during his walks into and out of the courtroom, and his uncanny chestnut hair and expensively architected teeth make his face look unnatural, illegible. He needs to be seen in an unguarded moment, with an artist’s eye.

So how does Lien depict the leading man?

On Wednesday, Lien rendered Manafort, too, in almost a perfect profile. But if James’ chin is held high, Manafort’s is in his hands, and seemingly sunk down into the pad of pink fat below it. There’s no other way to put it, and you can see for yourself (@courtartist or courtartist.com, though the website may not have all the latest images). James’ jawline is brave and clean. Manafort’s seems broken, weak.

Surely Manafort’s keeps his chin up sometimes. But Lien repeatedly captures Manafort at his least self-conscious. He’s not squirming, which would imply he believes that he has a chance of escape.

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Unaware that he’s under the sweet and only gently ironic eye of Art Lien, Manafort seems resigned. Almost defeated.

Twitter: @page88

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