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(photo by Colin McConnell)

Toronto Star
Entertainment — front page
March 27, 2015

The artist builds a scene in splashes of watercolour, palettes of paint beside him on the courtroom’s hard bench, spare brushes like spokes in his clenched right fist. He starts with the flag-flanked bench, then paints the judge, an anxious defence lawyer and a member of the police sex crimes unit with a designer handbag and an immaculate blond bun.

“Catching women’s fashion is very important to me.”

Paint clings to the cuffs of his faded blazer. He leaves a space for the man accused of sexually assaulting several young girls. He does not paint the alleged victims when they take the stand.

“More than anything, I want to see justice work,” he says. “As a kid, I didn’t have that chance.”

For 13 years, David Louis Wall has painted in Toronto’s courthouses. Nearly everything he creates is donated to the Archives of Ontario. He earns no money for this work.

“I’m capturing a culture that nobody else has captured: the courtroom culture, the press culture, the police culture,” Wall says. “I find it all very beautiful.”

Because cameras are prohibited from most Canadian courtrooms, court artists have long provided glimpses of legal drama to the media. They focus on painting the stage. Wall captures the entire theatre: dozing court officers, nervous witnesses, handcuffed defendants, scribbling journalists, jurors in rapt attention, members of the public, a niqab-wearing woman talking on a cellphone in a court hallway, her curious child, judges in their robes, a brilliant stained glass window in Old City Hall, a lone soda machine in the basement of the same building.

Wall is quiet and unassuming, with fragile blue eyes, a well-tended mop of hair and a greying goatee. On first glance, his delicate demeanour seems incongruous with his focus on violent crime, police brutality, the abuse of minors and murder. But more lurks under this surface.

Wall has painted the Via Rail terror trial, a G20 police disciplinary hearing and the deportation proceedings for Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. Still, he prefers to paint smaller cases — the ones the media ignores — to capture fleeting glimpses of human dramas that would otherwise be lost forever. By his count, he’s attended nearly 2,000 trials. Most lead to multiple paintings.

Although anyone can ask to see Wall’s work at the Archives of Ontario, it will not be publicly exhibited for at least 40 years.

Wall was first drawn to the city’s courts in 2002 for the trial of four Toronto police officers in the beating death of Otto Vass. He came out of curiosity. Spellbound by the proceedings, Wall began sketching. He followed the case for a year and a half, producing some 330 images: the first 300 in charcoal then a final experimental batch in watercolour — a medium he now prefers for its ease and speed. The officers were eventually found not guilty of manslaughter. Wall has been visiting the city’s courts ever since.

Largely self-taught, his documentary work is piercing in its attention to detail and deceptive simplicity. He strives for the essential truths of a situation rather than objective renderings. Wall often scratches text across his paintings: names, dates, case numbers, lists of charges and quotes.

He scrawls “GOD IS IN THE ROOM” in bold capital letters whenever he feels that someone is lying under oath.

“We are here as minds, not observers,” he says at one point, reading from a list of his own court rules. “Draw what you see: only the true essence of it. Always move around the room, no one is the focus, and make sure you are never the focus . . . Draw what you observe and your art will tell the story.”

Wall makes ends meet by privately selling oil and acrylic portraits and landscapes. He lives frugally in an old highrise off Church St. Wall’s own work hangs on the otherwise bare walls: a meticulously detailed church, an image of himself as a baby being cradled by his father, a depiction of former mayor David Miller standing at a podium, forlorn, being comforted by a trio of nude angels.

Born into a broken home in Regent Park in 1961, Wall says he endured repeated sexual assaults from the ages of 6 to 9 at the hands of a young man who masqueraded as the boy’s mentor. When he told his parents and the police, it broke his fragile family apart. By the age of 11, Wall had been kicked out of the house. He left school and stole from shopping malls, exchanging goods for places to sleep.

When Wall was 15, his mother was shot to death in the back by her then-boyfriend. The man died of natural causes before the case went to trial, Wall says. The man who assaulted him was never charged. Wall later learned that he killed himself. After more than four decades, Wall says those wounds still burn.

Nearly every day, he visits a Toronto courthouse. Sometimes there will be a case he wants to follow; other times he’ll spend the morning stalking hallways, checking dockets for charges, hunting for anxious witnesses and signs of drama. He’ll even poke his head into courtrooms, looking for compelling cases and interesting faces. Once he’s latched onto a case, he usually sees it through to its end. Having become a fixture in Toronto’s courthouses, many judges, lawyers and court officers know him by sight.

The rare times that Wall has been kicked out of a courtroom, he’s painted its doors.

For today’s case, it was the list of more than 20 sex-related charges posted outside the courtroom that drew Wall in. When he first read the list, he became visibly shaken.

“I can’t do these cases very often,” he says, trying to steady his breath. “On my first sexual assault case, I only lasted 10 minutes.”

During a recess, a male member of the police sex crimes unit glances over Wall’s shoulder.

“I just wanted to make sure you got my bald spot,” he says.

Wall smiles. The bald spot is clear. The officer laughs and walks away.

“If I could get money for every time I heard that,” Wall says.

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