The word ‘artifact’ comes from the Latin phrase arte factum. Literally translated, the phrase means “something made with skill,” and the modern word’s dominant definition is “a handmade object . . . characteristic of an earlier time or cultural stage.”
When Lois Dengrove donated her mother’s work to the University of Virginia Arthur J. Morris School of Law Library in March 2014, it was immediately evident to the staff that what we’d acquired wasn’t just several thousand beautiful drawings, though they certainly are beautiful: witness the captain and two mates on the deck of the Argo Merchant, gazing out at ten-foot seas, the water green and blue and black and white at once, the danger so palpable you can almost hear the breakers; or stare a while at the vacant music chair, a violin and lamp-lit score waiting for a woman who met a cruel, needless fate backstage, and who would never return to play the Met ballet’s second half.
The real surprise in looking through Dengrove’s art was that it inspired questions – what became of the ship in those turbulent seas, who stole that musician from where she belonged – and they were not the types of questions typically asked of art. The questions we were asking had answers based in facts, facts waiting to be uncovered in newspaper archives, twenty- and thirty-year-old books, magazine articles and strange crannies of the internet.
And those facts were part of what made the art beautiful, meaningful, true. But what makes these sketches precious is that they are artifacts from an era that is all but extinct. After Bruno Hauptmann’s 1935 trial for the Lindberg kidnapping – a proceeding made chaotic by the antiquated flash equipment of 1930s cameras – courtroom photography was restricted and eventually banned. Sketch artists became the only way for the media to offer visual coverage of trials. This didn’t change until the early 90s. The media event that was the O.J. Simpson trial was unimaginable only a decade prior.
The University of Virginia Law Library is elated to present an exhibit of 118 images comprising 60 court cases. Both criminal and civil trials are represented – contested wills, Mafia dons, deportation hearings, murder, kidnapping, police brutality, and others. The website contains these and nearly 6,000 other sketches catalogued by topic, including 1,751 we were unable to identify or to link with a particular court case.
We welcome you to the crossroads between art and fact.
Ida Libby Dengrove (1919-2005) grew up in Philadelphia and often spent summers in New Jersey. Drawing quick portraits on the boardwalk at Cape May, she and her mirror twin, Freda, became adept at capturing a wide variety of facial features and expressions. After innumerable awards and scholarships, Ida Libby married and had three children. When they were grown in 1972, she became a sketch artist at WNBC New York. Her tenure coincided with a sharp rise in New York City’s crime rate, and she sketched some of the most noteworthy trials of the late twentieth century. She won two Emmys and was nominated twice more over the course of her career. After leaving NBC in 1987, Dengrove continued to draw, paint, and create for another twenty years, until her death from complications of Alzheimer’s at the age of eighty-six.