Arts & Life
Wed July 23, 2014
Jerry McJunkins: Charlotte's Courtroom Sketch Artist
For nearly three decades, Jerry McJunkins has been sitting inside courtrooms in Charlotte, moving his hands quickly over a large white posterboard with his colored pencils and pastels.
He's a professional courtroom sketch artist – perhaps the only one in Charlotte.
In the 1970s, Jerry McJunkins was doing what he could to make a living. He sold quick sketches of visitors at Carowinds and shopping malls for five dollars apiece.
And one day, he got a call from WCCB-TV.
"The producer called and asked me to bring my pad," McJunkins says. "And from there he said, sketch that guy across the office and when I did, he said OK, we'll pick you up in the morning."
At Carowinds, he was earning $85 a day. This job offered him more than double that – and it was going to be a long gig.
It was 1986 and televangelist Jim Bakker and The PTL Club were under federal investigation.
And that launched his career. Since then, he estimates he's done more than 1,500 courtroom sketches – mostly from the Mecklenburg County and federal courthouse uptown.
Many of them are stored in cabinets at his studio in Plaza Midwood. There are sketches of Michael Jordan on the witness stand, Fort Bragg triple murderer Timothy Hennis and Bernie Maddoff.
And even Barney – the purple dinosaur.
"Morris Costumes was being sued by the Barney people, because out in California, he has a store out there and the San Diego Padres rented one of their costumes," McJunkins says. "Now the San Diego Padres have a chicken for their mascot. The chicken beat up Barney. Can you imagine kids looking at that almost about throwing up?"
Bakker's Last Stand
His favorite sketch is called "Bakker's Last Stand." It's from the final hours of the Jim Bakker trial in 1989.
"And it was just everything. I put in the grains in the wood. Judge Potter's expression of contempt and how some of the jury was kind of riveted, looking at him."
But these days, there's not as much demand for his work.
"It's a dying art, because some of the stations when I ask, 'Would you want an artist?', they say no we got a picture of the defendant walking in or walking out and they tell their story," McJunkins says. "So they're not looking at it as an art form to encourage – to them it's just how to save money."
He says his sketches help capture the energy and mood in a court, especially when cameras are not allowed. He says that mood changes when cameras are in court.
"People are usually very stoic, polker-face, no emotions and sometimes it's very difficult to see the character," McJunkins says. "See the jury have to make a decision, not just based on facts, based on expressions too and how people feel."
A Checkered Past
He says his own experience with the court system helps him do his job. After graduating from West Charlotte in 1968, he joined a traveling jazz band and sold marijuana. He was in and out of jail.
And then he got locked up in Florida for stealing a motorcycle.
"I sit in that jail and I began to have a replay of my life," McJunkins says. "I said 'Jerry, either you're going to make some changes or this is how it's going to be.' "
He came home, took art classes at Central Piedmont Community College and a career was born.
His original sketches sell for $1,500. He often gets requests from judges, attorneys, jury members and he even sold one sketch to a man convicted of murdering his wife. Some are even signed by the people in them – like former U.S. Senator John Edwards.
"He was going up on the elevator and so I said, 'Hey could you sign my pieces?" McJunkins says. "He said, 'Sure.'"
He's 65 and focusing now on selling his artwork. He also teaches seminars on courtroom art. But he says there's only one way to become good at what he does.
"I can tell you everything, but you still going to have to do it," McJunkins says. "It takes experience to do that. It really does. It's nothing you learn overnight. "
And when he's not inside a courtroom, you can still find him sketching portraits of customers at Southpark Mall.