In one corner of the basement of Tim Leeming’s Oak Park home, a couple of dozen framed faces stare out at observers.
Mostly African Americans, they were created via printing press or in oil paint. Some are straight black and white. Others are touched up with color. Instead of centering their bodies, many are squeezed up against one side of the frame, or their heads are positioned in the middle. “It’s almost like a target in an arcade,” says Leeming, the artist.
Their expressions show fear, discomfort and surprise. None of them are smiling.
This series, which Leeming created about 10 years ago, is called “The Accused.” It attempts to capture the progression of the criminal justice system in Cook County. Leeming painted or sketched men from just after their arrests, through their time awaiting trial, to their convictions.
The goal, he said, was to “develop images that capture the vulnerability of people in the system and their predicament.”
Leeming, who has been working as a criminal defense lawyer for about 30 years, first got the idea for the series from a friend in the Chicago art club he belongs to. Artists are supposed to document their times, he said, and the idea arose during a time when urban areas were experiencing high crime rates and an unprecedented number of incarcerations.
Some of the men Leeming has represented, but he’s never asked his clients to pose. He used photos already in the newspapers or created the subjects based on people he’s seen over the years.
One documents the interrogation phase, with a man standing up against a wall and an electrical cord plugged in next to him. It evokes former Chicago police commander John Burge and his electrocution tactics, Leeming said.
In another etching, a man sits handcuffed in a cell with faces where his legs should be. Leeming said those could be his siblings or others in his life who contributed to how he got to jail. A bunch of the men in Leeming’s portraits are missing hands, and one man’s top and bottom halves are not connected. The dismemberment is meant to show that “when you’re in the system, you’re not empowered,” he said.
Leeming was struck by the irony of their clothing — Nike sweatshirts and jerseys representing sports teams — because those symbolize power and affluence.
“He’s probably never been to Philly in his life,” Leeming said of one man with a Phillies jersey on. He decided to draw scratches on the man’s visible chest to emphasize the contrast between surface and the reality underneath.
After he felt he had documented all the phases of men in the system, Leeming realized he needed one final image. So he etched a dead body. Though it’s not pleasant, he thought it was necessary because it’s what led to many of the convictions.
“It’s an unhappy collection,” he acknowledged, but he’s happy with how it turned out even though it makes people uncomfortable. It shows life in the system without glorifying it, Leeming said, which is important during a time when he’s noticed a level of complacency about the number of murders committed in Cook County.
“I try to document the human aspect of it,” he said. “This is what’s really going on.”