January 8, 2010

My portfolio of art supplies had passed uneventfully through the metal detectors and I was seated on a bench inside Detroit’s U. S. District Court. Outside the doors there were demonstrators and cameras and more cameras; people talking and shouting in languages from around the world. Inside the cameras were banned and it was eerily quiet. Federal Marshals walked by with eager but silent sniffing dogs.  Other artists sat near me trying and failing to read magazines. There was nothing to do but wait. In a few hours the famed “underpants bomber” Umar Farouk  Abdulmutallab would enter the courtroom down the hall and I would be counted on to draw him for ABC, CBS, FOX, AP, EPA, and the Detroit Free Press. The word was that the arraignment might take only a couple minutes.  I was on edge because  I’d never had so many counting on me to create courtroom art with so little time to do it.  As if this wasn’t enough, I was placing further pressure on myself for personal reasons.  I hadn’t produced court art in a year and I was less than satisfied with my last effort. I wasn’t sure I still had what it took.  Further complicating things, I was out of touch with WDIV, the local NBC affiliate which since 1981 was my TV home.  It bothered me that for the Abdulmutallab arraignment they  decided to switch to someone else. I suppose that I was naive to think of people at a TV station as family but thats the kind of thing I did and once one feels betrayed by family its terribly hard to compensate for it, even with overwhelming support from other sources.

At one o’clock the artists were allowed into the courtroom and allowed to set up in the jury box.  This was great news for a couple of reasons.  It meant that we would have an hour to prepare a background sketch of the courtroom and we would be in the best possible position to see Abdulmutallab at the podium.  I had called days before asking for this seating but was unsure we would get it.   I was seated in the upper row of the jury box at the far end. In front of me was an artist who curiously also claimed to be working for AP.  To my right were the artist for NBC Network News, and an artist for the Detroit News. To the right of the other AP artist was the woman who had locked up all the local affiliates including WDIV. Both the local affiliate artist and I  had worked the Detroit scene for many years and I had considered her a friend as well as a rival.  Now she wanted to be chatty and I wasn’t in the mood. “Why haven’t you called?” she asked. I didn’t respond but thought it might have been nice if she called me before she went after my job at WDIV.

We all were busy drawing people seated in the courtroom when the clock struck two and on cue a door opened and Abdulmuttalb was led in. He was chained at the ankles and moved awkwardly, painfully.  He was small and looked like a teenager in a large white T-shirt and baggy pants.  His shoulders were bony and his head was shaved.  Abdulmuttalab’s  face was locked in a blank stare as if he was in a trance.  He was shuffled over to a table where his lawyer sat waiting for him.  He seemed to be listening intently for a couple of minutes but his expression never changed.  Then it was up to the podium.  This was it; the moment we had been waiting for that no preliminary sketch could capture.  A little voice in my head said, “don’t screw this up.”  My hands were on their own as my brain was of little help. Doubt had crept in. I didn’t draw his attorney or the guard or even the judge. I was locked in on Abdulmuttalab’s profile.  He was asked a couple of questions and it was over.  True to form no more than four minutes had elapsed as he was steered out the door. Just before he disappeared he took one look back towards those seated in the courtroom.  His family, most notably his father who had tried to warn authorities about him, was not  there.  Nobody in the world was more alone at that moment than this skinny young victim of fanaticism.

What happens to the sacrificial lamb when he doesn’t die? Abdulmuttalab will be squeezed for information, paraded before the public a couple more times and then he will be locked up and forgotten.

I looked at my sketch and was relieved that it felt like him.  I embellished it only slightly because I didn’t want to lose the tenuous likeness.  I threw in a vague drawing of the judge who I only remembered as African-American with a mustache. I added some color to my drawing of Abdulmuttalab at the table and I was done. There was no more time to work. The reporters, producers and cameramen were waiting outside for me to emerge with the two scant sketches that I was able to produce.

My sketches were taped to the side of a van and the cameras from all the various news sources that I was working for circled around and, like starving vultures, fed off my images. I even picked up CNN.

In my car while driving away there was time to reflect.  I was ambivalent about my performance. I felt that I had done the job but just barely. I felt that I had captured the best likeness but other artists had more complete sketches. I didn’t fully believe the words of a CBS producer who told me that I hadn’t lost my touch.  Then there was the lingering image of Abdulmutallab.  The success of my performance meant nothing compared to his failure; the failure that began with his decision to attempt a suicide bombing.  My feeling of abandonment by WDIV felt petty.

I’d like to say that the lasting effect of this day is that I am able now to put things in better perspective.  Its more true that what I am left with is a lingering feeling of sadness.