Confessions of an Artist and a Lawyer: Practicing Art Law, One Trial and Painting at a Time
December 5, 2019
By Stephanie Drawdy.
When I chose the legal profession as a career, it was so that I could feed a burning intellectual interest in the law. An introductory political science course in high school piqued my interest in the process of government and politics. From that time, I felt a strong pull towards being a law school graduate; I believed (rightly or not) that I would then have earned a “legitimate” voice in our society by virtue of being, not just a creative thinker, but also a critical thinker.
I also became a lawyer so that I could afford to be a self-sufficient painter. My “Grand Plan”: practice law to pay the bills, practice painting to feed my soul. To my mind, I had stumbled upon a treasure trove when I learned during my time at New York Law School that an art law course was offered, taught by Judith Bressler; it was one of the best courses in my law school experience. Up to that point, my adoration of art and my interest in law were segregated; now, I saw the potential for both interests to live in harmony.
The ecosystem of art law has many facets. It includes some topics that can be rather dry, contracts for example; others drip with intrigue, Nazi-looted art being the most obvious. During my studies at London’s Institute of Art and Law (IAL), I was introduced to a fuller breadth of the topics residing under the umbrella of art law: restitution and repatriation, de-accessioning of art, protection and censorship of street art, and the list goes on.
I am often impressed by the multitude and magnitude of art law topics that present themselves if you are looking for them. At an IAL Study Form in March, IAL Assistant Director, Alexander Herman, discussed a recent news item about an 18th-Century Panini painting that went missing from London’s Orleans House Gallery fifty years ago. The Gallery hired a painter, Fred Fordham, to re-create the painting from a black-and-white photograph and existing versions of the painting. The issue raised was whether Fordham would have a right to copyright in this derivative work under UK law. To be eligible, Fordham would need to show his painting was an “original work of skill, labour and judgement; minor alterations that do not substantially alter the original would not qualify.” Since the composition of both paintings is the same, did Fordham merely re-create the Panini with “minor alterations”? Or did Fordham make choices that “substantially” altered from the original? Would his choice of palette be deemed a substantial alteration? Or would Fordham’s reference to existing versions make his pigment choices a “minor” alteration?
The questions raised regarding the Panini reproduction are examples of the many issues that emerge in art law that cause me to ask, would I have the same passion to answer these questions if I was not both a painter and an attorney? Since I started down this dual road of artist/attorney, I have met more than once with self-imposed doubt over my choice to practice law and not give myself fully to painting. As the adage goes, “creativity takes courage.” Thank you, Mr. Matisse. I have known many courageous, full-time artists who do well, and their success has always triggered me to question whether I am authentically a painter since I wear the proverbial hat of a lawyer as well.
My legal work thus far has covered a broad range of areas, few of which have dealt with art: reinsurance, director/officer liability, and construction defects are some examples. As a litigator, my week-to-week includes researching and writing memoranda, deposing witnesses for hours until they admit to their wrongdoing, disagreeing with opposing counsel over most things, preparing for mediation, preparing for trial, preparing for appeals, and then explaining to clients why their case is taking so much longer to resolve than they prefer. Like many other law school graduates I know, our work affords a financial benefit, but sometimes the legal climate leaves our souls panting. My night time/weekend work as a painter is what waters my desert, rehabilitating me as I sketch and paint.
At brunch recently, a law school friend and I discussed our careers as attorneys, and the artistic pull we had each felt since childhood. We were continuing a long-running discussion of Elle Luna’s book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, which encourages self-awareness about your career and your calling. Ms. Luna, whose father was an attorney, was rejected from every law school she applied to; she credits these rejections as the impetus for her to realize both her calling and career as an artist. My friend, whose calling is to write, left his corporate job for a season to pursue writing exclusively; after about a year of wrestling with the day-to-day of sitting with his words, he has now re-entered corporate life in a position that he believes will provide an opportunity to incorporate his calling into his career. When the topic turned to my ability to sit with and push my paintings to the next level, he pointedly asked: are you perhaps practicing law and embracing art law to avoid a true call to paint full-time? The grit of his question resonated with me.
I have finally arrived at the answer… no. I have grown to appreciate that my choices have not been missteps. Like T.S. Eliot whose career as a banker gave him the freedom to write and Philip Glass whose work as a plumber facilitated his work as a composer, so I have the freedom to paint because I practice law, whether that includes cases about art or not. My voice as an artist is also arguably amplified by my position as a lawyer; while it is easy to discount an artist’s contribution to, say a museum board, because artists “by nature are rule breakers” who may jeopardize the institution they should be serving, those in authority are less likely to dismiss an attorney who also happens to be an artist from a position in such an institution.
What’s more, my career (the law) and my calling (the painting) actually serve to complement one another. My analysis of the legal query surrounding the Panini reproduction is better because I am a painter; conversely, my paintings are better for having analyzed legal issues as that stimulates me on another level that painting does not reach. Because I travel this dual road, my mental eye is more keenly attuned and unified for each task ahead, be it a legal brief or a watercolor.
About the Author: Stephanie Drawdy is licensed to practice law in New York and South Carolina. She holds a B.A. in Studio Art and Political Science from the College of Charleston, a J.D. from New York Law School, and a Diploma in Arts Profession Law and Ethics from London’s Institute of Art and Law. She has studied painting under classical figurative artists from the New York Academy of Art, Studio Incamminati, Academy of Art College, McCormack Studios, and the New York Art Students League. Her paintings are largely representational and include landscapes, still life, and the figure. She can be found on Instagram under stephaniedrawdyart and can be contacted at email@example.com.