Having spent the first eighteen months of her life in a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany, Fay Plamka has always felt the need to be compassionate. For the past eight years, she has worked as a court illustrator, and she reserves a great deal of compassion for the people she draws.
“It’s very complicated. You get a feeling for them. First of all, it’s very intimidating for the person being drawn if he doesn’t know you. So in court, I, more than the others, try to be as friendly and non-threatening as possible,” she says.
Plamka is one of only a handful of court artists in Melbourne. Now illustrating for the ABC and Seven News, she started working in the courts when she was 54. What began as a ten-day favour for a friend has now turned into an eight-year career.
“They say it’s the most sought after job in Australia. I didn’t seek it out, it landed on me, but I’m very happy to have it.”
Born in 1947 to Jewish parents in the Foernwald Displaced Person’s camp near Munich, Plamka arrived in Australia at eighteen months of age. A gifted young artist, she studied at the National Gallery School under John Brack and alongside Rick Amor. But in 1968, as a twenty year old, she decided to move to Israel.
She lived in a kibbutz for six months to learn Hebrew and then joined the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem. There, she studied under a number of ex-Bauhaus teachers who had fled Nazi Germany. While still in Israel, Plamka was offered an apprenticeship in Vienna under Ernst Fuchs, the renowned leader of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism.
“I painted his paintings in a Renaissance workshop… He’d give me a little sketch and he’d say, ‘draw that for me,’ and I did.”
She studied under Fuchs for two years before returning to Israel, where she had developed a reputation as a skilled portrait artist. She picked up work with the Ha’aretz newspaper, drawing many well-known figures including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion for his 85th birthday.
With an established career in Europe and Israel, Plamka returned to Australia to marry and have children.
“That was the end of my career. It’s very hard when you’re a woman,” she recalls.
Plamka would go on to spend many years working in the advertising and graphic design industry in Melbourne, specialising in portraiture. It was during this time that she founded Illustrators Australia, an organisation she created to attain greater rights and protection for illustrators and their work.
“I was on a committee for the graphic designers association and they kept shutting me up when I tried to talk about illustrator’s issues. So I got in a huff and I rang around and got as many illustrators as I could to meet and we started our own society. Then we got copyright protection and all sorts of things were laid down in law which is why I get my drawings back from the ABC and Channel 7 and why I get paid now if another station uses them.”
In her time as a court illustrator she has come across some hardened criminals, yet she tries not to pass judgement. Often, she says, the people in the dock are just unlucky.
“You see awful things happening to people who don’t deserve it, or who are sick, mentally sick, or addicted, and they really can’t help what they are doing and we don’t do anything for them. We just incarcerate them with really evil people. Kids who have gotten drunk, 18 year-olds who have just learnt to drive who go hooning around in their cars, kill their best friend in their seat next door. And you know that they’re too young to even realise the consequences because they’re still only teenagers, they’re not evil. But after years in jail they’ll come out evil. That’s the hardest thing.”
Asked to list the people she has drawn as a court artist, her answer is simple.
“I’ve drawn them all I think. All the “underbelly” people. All the serial killers. Who else? You think of someone and I think I’ve drawn them all in the last 8 years.”
In 2009, Plamka won the Melbourne Press Club Quill Award for Best Illustration for her drawing of Judy Moran and Suzanne Kane. She nominates Judy Moran as one of her favourite court personalities.
“She is very entertaining because she loves the publicity. She gets all dressed up and she poses because she thinks it’s like a photo and preens herself and thinks she’s a film star. It’s very entertaining when people do that. She’s very entertaining.”
More recently, Plamka was in court for Matthew Johnson’s hearing into the murder of Carl Williams.
“A lot of career criminals don’t like being looked at. Especially when you’re looking directly at their face. I went past him and I said ‘Matt, I can’t draw you without looking at you but I’ll try to be as discreet as possible,’ and he said, ‘As long as you don’t make me look like a monster.’ I didn’t, I was quite compassionate in the drawing.”
Even after eight years, Plamka still grapples with the emotional strain that comes with the job. But while she says her work can be depressing, she isn’t about to give up court illustration any time soon.
“Until I have a stroke or drop dread. As long as I’m capable. It keeps me young and alert. So I’m up to the challenge as long as they’re up to keeping me.”