Journalist Tom Gianni Writes His Stories With Pictures

Chicago artist Tom Gianni knows one thing: his art often has a very quick turnaround.

The popular notion is that great art, of course, takes time. After all, Michelangelo famously took four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo could never have been a courtroom artist.

“Drawing fast is basically the challenge,” says Gianni, who draws court sketches for NBC5. “Getting the scene down, the judge, the jury, the witness, especially if it’s somebody famous, like Rod Blagojevich, because everybody knows who he is and what he looks like!”

That often brings its own challenges. After all, politicians have spent entire careers mindful of their image.

“Politicians such as Rod, are very interested in how I’m drawing them,” he says. “Patti Blagojevich sat next to me during the trial, and she would comment about how I was drawing Rod. At one point, she said I was making him too heavy!”

Gianni’s work will be on display in the SXU Gallery at Saint Xavier University, 3700 W. 103rd Street in Chicago. The show runs through the end of January.

Of course, courtroom art is a unique genre. But courtrooms are not the only place Gianni plies his trade.

“I also illustrate books, book covers, interiors for books, a lot of fantasy illustrations,” he said. “I’ve really gotten into illustrating Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, so that’s a real thrill for me to do!”

Sometimes those worlds intersect. A recent cover Gianni produced for a published version of “Hound of the Baskervilles”, featured a very familiar damsel in distress.

“I had become friends with one of the jurors in the Blagojevich trial,” he said. “I asked her, I’d like to use you on a book cover as a model, would you mind doing that, and she said no, not at all!”

And there, gasping in horror at the hound with Holmes wielding a revolver, is the former Blagojevich juror.

“I photographed her in costume, and worked from the photos of her,” he said. “And I painted her into the painting.”

Gianni has a new creation, a graphic novel star by the name of Mechanic Anna.

“She is basically kind of Rosie the Riveter,” he says. “And she has a mechanical arm.”

Anna hails from the pages of the pulp novels Gianni loves. And he not only draws her image, he creates her stories.

“She has to fight Nazis, Mafia, and monsters,” he laughs. “I write these stories and it’s a lot of fun!”

Gianni speaks with deep affection of a time long passed, where illustrators were household names. Norman Rockwell was one of the most famous artists of his generation, and most of his best-known pieces were actually created as covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

“James Montgomery Flagg, the painter of the ‘I Want You’ Uncle Sam poster, he was a celebrity,” he says. “He was a very flamboyant man, and he hung out with movie stars!”

Courtroom art is a unique genre, pushed aside by the entry of cameras in the courts of some jurisdictions.

“I understand that cameras are now entering the courtroom,” Gianni observes. “I might be a little biased, but I think I bring a little more drama---and flair.”

That he does. And especially in the Federal Courts where cameras are still not allowed, the work of Gianni and his fellow artists is vital for storytelling in television news.

“I arrange drawings so that they tell the story visually,” he says. “I consider myself a visual storyteller, whether I’m doing work for books, or the courtroom.”

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