Robert Maniscalco stared into the eyes of a remorseless sociopathic last fall and tried to capture part of a murderer’s soul. And in a show at the Fabulon — Center For Art & Education in West Ashley, he is sharing what he learned.
Maniscalco was initially hired by local television stations to provide courtroom sketches of the multiple-murder trial last year in which white supremacist Dylann Roof was charged with shooting nine parishioners at “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston in 2015.
Maniscalco was soon hired by a host of national media outlets, from CBS News to The Washington Post, and his drawings soon helped define the trial for an outraged nation and mourning community.
A jury found Roof guilty of close to three dozen hate crimes in federal court, where he was later given the death penalty. He was also given a life sentence in state court.
Maniscalco said he was present in the courtroom on several occasions when the jury was not in the room, and the audience was not in the gallery, when Roof would stare back at him.
“As I was drawing him very early on, the thought occurred to me, ‘Should I show him (the sketches) and turn around what I was working on?’” said Maniscalco, who lived in West Ashley for the past eight years and recently purchased a home in North Charleston. “I decided pretty quickly I didn’t want to share anything with him.”
Maniscalco described the unrepentant killer Roof, whose cupcake bangs were in stark contrast to his horrible crimes, as “eerie. He seemed like someone very satisfied with what he’d done.”
Roof shot him a “malevolent blank stare,” said the artist, “and it was like there was an empty soul staring out at me. And then he smiled, like he was saying, ‘You have to draw me.’”
Maniscalco said Roof seemed to “enjoy the idea that he ‘had’ me.”
This was not the first time Maniscalco had been a courtroom sketch artist. He had done a little work at an earlier trial of a Lowcountry woman who left the country with her daughter and moved to Australia and raised the child to early adulthood.
Roof has been very clear in court statements and conversations with his representation that he does not want to be seen as crazy, and fired his defenders when they suggested entering an insanity plea on his behalf.
Roof has been adamant in his white supremacist beliefs, saying that it was his desire to start a “race war” with his crimes.
And it is Maniscalco’s hope to show how “desire” can manifest — positively and negatively — in the human condition through his gallery show, “The Quench Project and the Mire of Desire,” which will end at Fabulon on Wappoo Road on Aug. 10.
Many of the sketches completed during the trial will be on display, as will other works related to the theme of desire, will be on display. Special breakout discussion sessions will take place next Tuesday, Aug. 8 at the gallery.
The show is intended to address a wide swath of deep issues in addition to desire, indulging racism, peace, and forgiveness, said Maniscalco, who will be bringing to bear a wide range of life experiences in the show and the discussions.
The grandson of an Italian immigrant cigar maker who settled in Tampa, Maniscalco grew up near Detroit, worked onstage as an actor in New York City, and has penned plays and books, in addition to his work on the canvas.
Interestingly, he said he has not had an impulse to convert any of his sketches into full portrait, the skill he is best known for.
“I’m showing the sketches in their raw form: they’ve not been cleaned up, just good enough for them to be filmed for national television. I like the messiness, the fingerprints, the immediacy of the sketches I did,” said Maniscalco. “I like them as they are; done so quickly and so frantically, with lots of mistakes and things I would not do if I had all the time in the world.”
The Quench Project explores alternatives to societal ideas about beauty, tragedy and survival. The theme is the resilient nature of humans to rise “out of darkness.” Maniscalco, who is a survivor of child sexual abuse, has dedicated his artistic life to telling the stories and celebrating the triumph of the human spirit; specifically, our capacity to turn great adversity into victory. These are stories each of his fellow beings share in common, in our creative journey of survival.
Fabulon is located at 1017 Wappoo Road. For more information on Rob Maniscalco’s show, call (843) 566-3383 or visit www.fabulonart.com.