The Taylor Swift trial appears to be drawing to a close, with most prognosticators predicting it will end today, August 14. That will likely come as a relief to Jeff Kandyba, the sketch artist hired to capture the scene in the federal courtroom, which doesn't allow cameras. Kandyba's work has been ridiculed by snarky media organizations as well as Swift fans, some of whom have even implied that he's purposefully submitted unflattering likenesses because he favors Katy Perry in her longtime feud with the "Bad Blood" singer. But Kandyba, who's actually drawn courtroom sketches in high-profile cases for three decades in the Denver area, scoffs at the notion.
"I don't have a horse in either of those races," Kandyba told us on Friday, August 11, during a recess prior to the judge in the case tossing DJ David Mueller's claims against Swift — though he's allowing those against Andrea Swift, her mother, and radio manager Frank Bell to move forward. "I don't listen to either of them. I know who they are, and I think they both seem like really fine individuals. But I don't have a preference either way. Taylor Swift fans think that because of my drawings, I must not like her, and it's not like that at all."
Swift's loyalists aren't the only ones to go after Kandyba. Last week, TMZ published a post headlined "Lookin' Sketchy in Butt-Groping Trial" that included the subhead, "Taylor Swift Drawn Terribly In Court Sketches for Butt-Groping Trial." Likewise, Buzzfeed weighed in with "Good Luck Trying To Unsee This Terrifying Courtroom Sketch of Taylor Swift," adding, "Don't look directly at it!"
In his defense, Kandyba said, "I'm probably sitting 35 feet away from her looking through binoculars — and if you've ever tried to draw anything looking through binoculars, it's not the easiest thing in the world. You go more for resemblance, and hopefully you can at least get that."
As noted on Kandyba's website, courtroom sketches are one of many illustration areas in which he specializes. "This past Monday, in fact, I was doing a design for fire trucks in Baltimore," he revealed. "And a couple of years ago, I did a huge project that was all medical-related stuff. I work out of my house and do all kinds of things."
He got into the trial biz almost by coincidence. "I worked at an advertising agency in Denver, and my art director, the person I worked under, used to do sketches for Channel 4, which at that time was the NBC affiliate," he remembered. "Then I quit to go out on my own and start my own business — this was back in 1986 — and Channel 4 called the art director to ask if he could cover a trial. He said, 'I have a full-time job, but I know somebody who can,' and he gave them my name. And I've been doing it for them ever since."
One of his first big assignments was the 1987 murder trial of Alan Berg, a KOA radio star who was assassinated by a white nationalist group called The Order. "That one was scary, just because of the people in the gallery, who were absolutely terrifying," he recalled. "There was this one guy, a pretty big guy who had swastikas on one forearm and all this hateful stuff all over him. He would lean over me as I was working and say, 'You're doing a good job! That really looks good!' We got to talking, and I asked him, 'Are you training to be a lawyer?' And he said, 'I can't be a lawyer. I'm a felon.' After that, the marshal kind of corralled me, asking me what we were talking about. I said it was pretty innocuous stuff, but they checked him out anyway and said, 'It's okay. He's nobody. We're not worried about him.'"
He added, "The security around that trial was incredible. They had guards out on the street with uzis. They were expecting the worst. Thank God nothing like that happened."
Back then, Kandyba wasn't the only Denver artist handling such gigs. "I worked exclusively with Channel 4, and Channel 9 had their own guy, and Channel 7 had a woman," he pointed out. "We were the three regulars who showed up for these court cases for years. That's how it worked up until about 2000. And then, for some reason, I didn't get called for anything for about ten years, and then I started getting calls from Channel 9. I couldn't understand why they weren't still using the other guy, because he was really good; I think he was by far the best of the three of us. But I heard he went on to a successful fine-arts career. So I started getting a few cases from them, and then this pooling thing came in."
Kandyba thinks "the courts got tired of having all their space taken up by artists, so now there's usually only one artist in there, and they usually pool my resources in the courtroom. And I guess I'm the last man standing."
For that reason, he's gotten to be a fly on the wall for some major prosecutions, including the terrorism trials of Aurora shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi and his father. On top of that, Kandyba said, "I got in on the first hearing for James Holmes," the Aurora theater shooter. After that, NBC Universal wanted to put their own man in there, and since they were footing the bill, everybody just went along with it. But that was still pretty noteworthy."
He doesn't use that kind of language in describing the Swift-Mueller face-off. "I've been surprised that it's getting the kind of attention it is," he said. "I'm aware that Taylor Swift is a huge celebrity, but it's not like this is a landmark, precedent-setting anything. I don't even really consider it all that newsworthy. I don't have anything one way or the other against any of the people. It's just kind of a tawdry little affair."
After a pause, he continued: "We're talking about a federal court case dealing with some guy grabbing a girl on her butt. I still can't wrap my mind around that. None of that computes. Personally sitting there listening to it, I can't imagine that this guy ever thought he had a case to begin with. I know the Taylor Swift camp never wanted to make this public. And this guy keeps saying, 'I need to move beyond this, I need to move beyond this' — but he's the only one making any noise about it. If that's really what your intentions are, you're making this so much worse."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Then again, Kandyba admitted, "I've been wrong about things before. I was wrong about Hillary."
At the time of our conversation, Kandyba knew that "there has been some negative feedback on the Internet" about his sketches of Swift, but he hadn't paid much attention to it. "I don't think you can ever draw a personality like Taylor Swift well enough to have everybody go out and say, 'That's great.' But most of the feedback I've gotten has been very positive."
Given Kandyba's experience as a sketch artist, he won't be defined by the Taylor Swift case, and when it's over, he'll shed no tears. "I just want those emails off me," he said.
Hear that, Taylor Nation?