"I'm one of those people who cries when someone cries," Cornell said. "I love to look at people and get under their skin, to feel how they're feeling. It's always interesting in a courtroom. The stories are all so real and you're able to observe people so closely."
That's why the Weehawken resident has made a living for the last 25 years as one of the most respected courtroom sketch artists in the New York metropolitan area. Her work has been featured regularly on NBC, ABC and CNN. She's captured the facial expressions of such notorious courtroom figures as John Gotti, Leona Helmsley and Imelda Marcos. She covered the World Trade Center bombing trial and captured those images with precise detail.
Just recently, Cornell was in the courtroom to capture the looks of convicted murderers Kenneth and Sante Kimes, the famed mother and son team who were convicted of murdering Manhattan socialite Irene Silverman, even though her body was never found.
In fact, Kenneth Kimes held a sign up to Cornell during the trial, asking her what television station she was working for.
"That was a little dangerous," Cornell said. "Kenneth Kimes is a fascinating personality, with implacable good looks, almost like Charlton Heston, with the cleft chin. He's handsome, yet cold. I think the meanness changed the look in his mother's face. She must have been a very attractive woman at one time. But they definitely looked very capable of cruelty. They're all fascinating characters, and in some way, I feel a little sympathetic to them all."
Cornell, a native of Oklahoma who has called Weehawken home for the last decade, got her start following her older sister, WCBS-Radio reporter Irene Cornell, to trials. Cornell comes from a family of reporters. Her father, Cameron Cornell, was also a radio and television reporter during the birth of television.
However, young Christine was always an artist.
"I was drawing from the minute I could hold a Crayon," Cornell said. "I don't think there was ever a day in my life where I didn't want to paint or draw for a living. Not even a tiny window of doing something else. Maybe when I was a child, I wanted to be a trapeze artist, but that was it. I drew all the time."
Saw 'Hurricane' trial
When she was 15 years old, Cornell went with her sister to the federal trial of former Newark Mayor Anthony Addonizio in Trenton and started to draw there. In 1975, at age 20, she went to the second Rubin "Hurricane" Carter murder trial and drew sketches there as well.
"I've been drawing ever since," Cornell said. "I never went anywhere without my pad. My sister knew a lot of people, so she helped to get me work."
Since then, Cornell has drawn sketches for some of the most famous trials in the area, including the ones mentioned above and all of the trials related to Mafia boss Gotti and his henchmen.
"I remember looking at Sammy ["The Bull"] Gravano and thinking of his wife and how his wife should feel that her husband did some inconceivable things," Cornell said. "It was all very sobering. As often as I covered these trials, I realized that people are capable of doing some incredible things, some heartbreaking tales. You can get emotionally devastated.
"But I've done a lot of studying of people over the years," Cornell added. "I have to be able to draw a portrait in a minute. If I only get a glimpse, of perhaps the defendant turning around to look at someone sitting behind them, then that's it. They may turn just once. I have to get it on that one look. I have to get it and move on it. You're put on the spot, but I kind of like that electricity."
Cornell said that courtroom sketching has changed dramatically over the years.
"You're drawing from life now," Cornell said. "It's a lot more expressive now."
Other than the Kimes trial, Cornell said that she was particularly fascinated with former hotel mogul Leona Helmsley and with Imelda Marcos, the wife of former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos.
"Her face turned a special tint, like a purply pink, that I had to get a special chalk for," Cornell said. "And Imelda Marcos was always crying, wearing black like she was in mourning, holding a crucifix. It didn't seem real." Cornell was asked if she's bothered that she's strictly drawing people that have been charged with serious crimes.
"I sort of feel like a priest in a confessional," Cornell said. "I look at them and move right in. That's what the job is, portrait sketching. I think of what they're accused of and how they're reacting to what's being said in the courtroom. I try to absorb them."
With the advent of Court TV and the permission to film inside courtrooms, the need for courtroom sketch artist is dwindling.
"There were years when I worked every single day in the year," Cornell said. "But work has been cut down dramatically. I used to work with contracts, but there aren't any contracts in the business anymore. There are only a few artists left and we all work for everyone. I get a call and I go. But I work perhaps a third of the time that I used to. It's a little bit of a rarity these days."
Cornell still works often and finds the time to care for her young daughter.
"I work more than any artist in the city," Cornell said. "But I have the baby and I don't have the time to do everything like I used to."
In her spare time, Cornell likes to paint landscapes.
"It's what makes me happiest," Cornell said. "I can paint candy-coated sunrises and goats sleeping and flowers. And with my background, I do it so fast. I can do a sunrise in 20 minutes. I never thought I'd be making a living on quick poses. I'm a gesture drawer and I've made a career out of it."
Added Cornell, "When I'm on vacation or relaxing, then I paint. And I paint everything."
Cornell said she doesn't know how much longer she can continue with being a sketch artist.
"They've been saying that this business will disappear for 15 years and here I am," Cornell said. "I'm still in it. I go along with my life and the work is still there. I'm not too worried. But I never get tired of drawing folks. I love what I do. The stories that I hear hurt and the sometimes the words fail me. But the drawings are there."