"Sketching Guantanamo” a New Chapter for Local Illustrator

Sketchin Guantanamo

Illustrator and art instructor Janet Hamlin has followed the Guantanamo military tribunals since 2006, paying close attention to what unfolds in the courtroom. Rather than a TV remote, she keeps pencils and pastels within reach to detail what few can observe firsthand. As the only sketch artist covering the trial of a confessed "mastermind" of the Sept. 11 attacks, major media outlets such as CNN, ABC News and The Associated Press, as well as Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report feature Hamlin’s illustrations worldwide.

I recently caught up with Hamlin to discuss her unique experience and forthcoming book, Sketching Guantanamo: Court Sketches of the Military Tribunals, 2006-2013. Along with illustrations from Cuba, the Nyack, N.Y., artist provides personal reflection throughout her new work, picked up by Fantagraphics Books. "Janet's courtroom sketches and commentary comprises a significant moral document, of interest to every citizen who cares about what the United States government is doing in his and her name," Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth says. "Sketching Guantanamo helps bring out of the shadows and into the light of public scrutiny these extrajudicial trials."

NOTE: Sketching Guantanamo due for release Oct. 2013.

TFM: Usually, you're covering the news, so how does it feel being featured in this month's WIRED for such detailed illustrations of the Guantanamo military trials?

JH: It's surreal and such an unexpected honor. The response from the WIRED article has been incredible.

TFM: What's the most valuable lesson learned from being a courtroom artist face to face with the accused masterminds of 9/11?

JH: When I first sketched Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who claims to have "masterminded the 9/11 attacks from A to Z," he claimed that I'd drawn his nose wrong. Actually, he was correct, and I reworked the drawing. I learned that the detainees had the right to request such an adjustment.

TFM: How did the opportunity come about and eventually lead to sharing this once-in-a-lifetime experience in your new book, Sketching Guantanamo?

JH: In 2006, I was working with The Associated Press and they wanted to send an artist to sketch in Guantanamo. I had done court sketching for them in the past, so they sent me. Basically, I was in the right place at the right time, with the right skills.


TFM: In what is still considered a male-dominated arena, it's no easy task establishing yourself in such a specialized area of expertise. Did you ever envision another career path?

JH: I never envisioned this career path, I really thought it was just one trip. But then one trip led to two, then three. By the fourth trip, the journalists were familiar with me and I started going as a freelancer, working with a variety of media.

TFM: Advice for those up-and-coming artists debating which route to take professionally?

JH: Well, breaking into court art is tough. There are about six court artists in New York and they have every media outlet covered. It's extremely competitive. I'd encourage up-and-coming artists to learn traditional but also digital media. The more tools you have, the better.

TFM: How can seasoned illustrators stay competitive amid a sea of constant change?

JH: Same as what I said above; know a variety of media. Have strong skills, good ideas and pursue what you love. There are many ways in which creatives can work, from games to animation, editorial, medical, technical and informational graphics, to name a few.

TFM: Besides charcoal, what are your tools of choice and why?

JH: Pastels are my tool of choice with court sketching because I can work on top of it when things suddenly change (or a nose has to be fixed). I work on toned paper because it's faster in building out a scene, pulling lights and darks out.

TFM: Favorite way to unwind when not sketching?

JH: Playing Scrabble with the journalists, and riding a bike around the base while in Guantanamo. After a long day in court, it's a great way to wind down!



Nyack Center Figure Drawing 

Janet Hamlin Figure Sketches

View more of Hamlin's illustrations