Garrett Blends Art and Law

June 27, 2008

Long before he became known for his legal work on wrongful convictions, Professor Brandon Garrett wanted to be an artist.

Brandon Garrett

For years, he has balanced his career as a lawyer and legal scholar with his interest in painting, a pastime that has led to gallery exhibits and art sales.

"It's an important part of my life, but I've always done just the right amount to keep myself happy," Garrett said.

He started painting semi-professionally in high school in Bethesda, Md., and credits renowned local art instructor Walter Bartman with developing his talent.

After high school, Garrett pursued an art career and chose Yale because of the reputation of its graduate program in art. He began as an art major, but sought to broaden his studies by majoring in philosophy, though he continued to take painting classes.

"I was fortunate in college to study under several luminary painters," Garrett said.

He took a graduate figure painting course from contemporary realist William Bailey, whose art is found at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., and New York City's Museum of Modern Art. He also had the chance to study under Bernard Chaet, John Hull and Robert Reed, among others.

After graduating from Yale in 1997, Garrett proved a resourceful artist while working in New York as an advocate for the homeless.

"I commandeered the boiler room of the organization I was working at to use as a painting studio," Garrett said. In his spare time he was doing on-site paintings of the New York skyline.

But Garrett found that he disliked the marketing side of art. "I enjoyed being an advocate and I enjoyed writing. I did not want to market myself in the art world as a career."

So he took his talents as an advocate and writer to Columbia University School of Law, where he spent three years studying law and painting whenever he had a chance. He taught a course to New Haven police academy students, which culminated in the officers-in-training painting a mural that was shown at a gallery.

"After I took the bar exam I lived in Seattle for two months and painted images of the waterfront," Garrett said. "During law school and a clerkship, my painting had lagged, so I was grateful for that time to re-start my art career." Garrett ended up selling a number of paintings from that series to several collections.

Back in New York as an associate at Cochran, Neufeld and Scheck, Garrett litigated wrongful convictions, DNA exoneration and police brutality cases. In Brooklyn, he showed his art in several professional and community galleries, and at a coffee shop, where he sold more of his paintings than at any other venue. He credits those sales to the fact that the paintings were relatively small - to fit inside New Yorkers' notoriously tiny apartments - and to the coffee shop taking a smaller commission, which lowered the prices.

Garrett never had an art studio while living in New York, but found that he could work on small paintings on his desk. He also found a way to cram as much art as he could into his packed law associate's schedule. "With a folding easel and a 9- by 12-inch canvas in my backpack I could bike down to the docks and spend a couple of hours painting after work," he said.

Many of Garrett's landscapes and seascapes were done as a series from life, where he painted what he observed. Others, such as the series on New York protests or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans' Ninth ward, were done from photographs he took.

A series of pizza paintings resulted from a commission by his wife, Law School colleague Kerry Abrams, for the kitchen in their Charlottesville home and reflects one of Garrett's other obsessions: to make the perfect New York-style pizza.

Through the years, Garrett's subjects have included everything from portraits of individuals to rock bands. Garrett's current work includes paintings just completed for the annual art show to be held later this summer at the Law School library. The assignment was to incorporate physical pieces from books and state papers provided by the library. Although he hasn't had an assignment since he was an art student, he was delighted to combine the letter of the law with painting. "It was a fun experiment," he said.

He has again commandeered a boiler room for a studio, but this time it is the basement in his own house and marks the first time in his art career that he has an in-house art studio. "Anytime that I do have a few minutes to paint, I don't need to clear off a desk or table, but can begin painting right away."

His duties at the Law School and the birth of his first child in October last year have significantly trimmed Garrett's time in the studio.

But he maintains representation in New York through Peter B. Ornstein Fine Arts and has a show planned for February at the Mud House coffee shop on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville.

"Exhibiting work and having a dealer in New York has been my way to keep a toehold in the art world, even though I chose a very different professional path."

Garrett said that painting can be relaxing, but as a mental exercise. "Painting is like running or going to the gym. It is a way to free up a different side of the brain." In fact, he said he feels out of shape if he goes months without drawing or painting. "It is something that I feel compelled to do," Garrett said, "The result is that I have a lot of paintings stacked in my basement. But there are no bare walls in the house, or in my office, or Kerry Abrams' office."

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