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Art Teacher Draws Historic Blankenship Trial: Here’s What He Saw


Here in central Appalachia, where coal reigns supreme, many people said the trial of Don Blankenship was something they had never imagined.

Never before has a top American coal executive been convicted of a crime related to the deaths of miners.

Cameras aren’t allowed in federal court for criminal trials. Two local artists, Rob Cleland and Jeff Pierson, were hired by the media to capture the trial.

As a sketch artist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Pierson spent 11 weeks drawing the trial of Don Blankenship. Pierson isn’t a seasoned courtroom artist. He earns his living as an art teacher. He’s also illustrated children’s books and painted outdoor murals. In a lot of his art, people are often in movement, playing the fiddle or dancing.


Credit Jeff Pierson
Pierson’s self portrait.

  At first glance, Pierson’s drawings from the Blankenship trial are quite different from the sketches of most courtroom artists. For one thing, he used a lot of expressive blue and red colors. And the faces he drew are vivid with emotion.

“I tend to exaggerate things. And going into this trial, I had to make sure that I kept my drawings very realistic, as opposed to caricature or exaggeration. But with a man of this nature, he is kind of a cartoon or a caricature, I had to be really careful not to do that. But I also think you can capture someone’s expression a little bit by exaggerating,” said Pierson.

Pierson said he tried to observe every detail of Don Blankenship’s face and body language to see if he could detect what he was feeling.

“When you look at Don Blankenship, when you look at a photograph of him, one thing people notice is a lack of emotion,” Pierson said. “People often said that his face was stoic and that ‘how do you capture any emotion from Don Blankenship?’ But I think when you’re seeing him in person in the courtroom. There’s a lot there actually, especially in the eyes. There’s a lot behind those eyes.”


Credit Jeff Pierson
Sketch of Don Blankenship from the first day of the trial

On the very first day of the trial, Pierson drew a sketch of Blankenship with dark circles under his eyes.

“His posture was very relaxed. He had his arm up on an empty chair in the courtroom. I just felt he was very relaxed, as if he didn’t care. But then I started studying his face. You can tell a lot through the eyes. And in this particular image, I was trying to capture a little bit of his humanities in this process and this situation he had found himself in. I saw a lot of sadness, but I also saw a lot of contempt for the process and for what was happening around him.”

At the end of this long process, Pierson said there’s one other sketch that stands out to him. It’s the drawing of the family members who had lost loved ones in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

“And my job was to capture their observance of the trial. And I decided to draw the back of Gary [Quarles’] head, looking at Don [Blankenship]. He would often glance over at Blankenship, and that’s what I decided to capture with Gary,” Pierson said. “Although we don’t see his face, I think there was a lot of emotion that was caught just by him looking at Mr. Blankenship during that trial. That was the most emotional sketch. In itself it was an emotional piece.

“As the trial went on, as we knew that the verdict was coming soon, those family members became more quiet. They were a little more reserved in their conversations. It was great to get to know them. But truly we became family. And I’d never met these people before, and I may never see them again. But that last day after that verdict, when I said goodbye to them it was tough. Because I know the impact that this has had on them, obviously, and to get this verdict, I think some of them were unhappy, some of them spoke out in the media, we’ve heard what they had to say. Some of them they didn’t get the closure they expected. There was one family member in particular that when he was emotional, it was hard not to be emotional about it. It was hard not to feel his pain and his suffering and his grief. And that was Gary.”

This April, Pierson plans to be back at the Federal Courthouse, with his sketchpad and pencils, for the sentencing of Don Blankenship.

A longer version of this interview will air on this weekend’s episode of Inside Appalachia.