Today, we’re used to cameras capturing nearly every banal moment of our day-to-day lives. They’re in ATMs and smart refrigerators; they even watch us as we watch TV. But at a generation-defining event of global importance—the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump—cameras were all but absent.
We were left to rely on drawing, the world’s oldest art form, for images of the historic moment.
With a few rare exceptions, cameras have been banned from the Senate Chamber for its entire history. (C-Span is granted the only televisual stream, but its video cameras are operated by government employees and confined to a limited viewpoint.) So content-hungry news agencies turned to illustrators like Art Lien and Bill Hennessy for color.
Veterans with several decades worth of experience between them, Lien and Hennessy have made a career covering the governments’ closed-door affairs, including action at the Supreme Court, which also bans cameras, and the Clinton impeachment trial twenty years ago.
Not much has changed since the Clinton era, the illustrators note. (Hennessy, commissioned by CBS, was even assigned the same seat he was given in 1999, right next to the C-Span cameras.) Bunched with the rest of the press in a small gallery of seats on the second floor, the artists craned their necks for snippets of the intricate scene below, which had all the drama of a stage set. “It’s not a courtroom,” Hennesy tells Artnet, laughing. “It’s a vast, huge chamber with a lot of people and a lot of political emotion.”
Hurriedly sketching vignettes from the floor, the illustrators provided a fascinating and strangely aestheticized glimpse into the behind-the-scenes details of the trial—Senator Richard Burr toying with a fidget spinner, for instance, or a protester being escorted away while yelling “Schumer is the Devil!”
They showed James Risch taking a nap, Bernie Sanders yawning, and the hulking cubbyhole where everyone is supposed to leave their phones. In one image, Mitt Romney inexplicably bumbles in with a container of chocolate milk, before remembering that bottles aren’t allowed in the chamber. (Not to be deterred from his sweet refreshment, he later returned with it in a glass.)
The Republican senator from Utah also provided one of the more poignant moments of the trial, announcing, on the verge of tears, his intention to vote to convict. It was a moment both artists were drawn to.
“He started out and then he paused for a while to regain his composure,” recalls Lien, who was working for the New York Times. “There weren’t many people in the press gallery at the time, but suddenly all these reporters came pouring out to see him speak.”
“The press themselves became part of the story,” adds Hennesy. “It’s very strict, the rules there. There’s even a sign along the rail that says ‘no leaning.’ But everyone was standing and leaning. The image of that was pretty powerful.”
Lien uses watercolor paint for his drawings, while Hennesy turns to colored pencil. But with ramped-up security efforts surrounding the trial, colored implements weren’t allowed into the chamber, so each illustrator sketched the Senate scenes in graphite before heading across the street to the Supreme Court to flesh out their work.
The whole thing was a mad dash, notes Lien. The two impeachment votes took less than an hour.
“Normally, during a Senate vote, the senators are mulling around, looking at the tally sheets on the tables up front. But in this case, all the senators were seated at their desks and as their names were called, they stood up and recorded their vote,” remembers the artist. “The whole time, I’m frantically trying to do a wide shot of the whole chamber with the galleries of visitors and the senators on the floor.”
Lien says the resulting, near-panoramic drawing of the vote took around two hours to finish.
“Being a courtroom artist is the last thing I expected to be doing as a career,” says Hennessy. “I thought the impeachment back in 1999 was the epitome of that—I remember thinking at the time, ‘Look where it’s taken me, it’s pretty amazing.’ To find myself there a second time was pretty incredible.”
See more of Lien and Hennessy’s sketches from the trial below.
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