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February 5, 2012

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Courtroom sketch artists fear end is near

WITH more cameras being allowed into courtrooms across the United States, sketch artists say their ranks are thinning quickly and that the long-standing practice may one day vanish altogether. Michael Tarm reports

One marker in hand and one in his mouth, Lou Chukman glances up and down from a sketch pad to a reputed Chicago mobster across the courtroom - drawing feverishly to capture the drama of the judge's verdict before the moment passes.

Sketch artists have been the public's eyes at high-profile trials for decades - a remnant of an age when drawings in broadsheet papers, school books or travel chronicles were how people glimpsed the world beyond their own.

Today, their ranks are thinning swiftly as states move to lift long standing bans on cameras in courtrooms. As of a year ago, 14 states still had them - but at least three, including Illinois this month, have taken steps since then to end the prohibitions.

"When people say to me, 'Wow, you are a courtroom artist' - I always say, 'One day, you can tell your grandchildren you met a Stegosaurus," Chukman, 56, explained outside court. "We're an anachronism now, like blacksmiths."

Cutbacks in news budgets and shifts in aesthetic sensibilities toward digitized graphics have all contributed to the form's decline, said Maryland-based sketch artist Art Lien.

While the erosion of the job may not be much noticed by people reading and watching the news, Lien says something significant is being lost. Video or photos can't do what sketch artists can, he said, such as compressing hours of court action onto a single drawing that crystallizes the events.

The best courtroom drawings hang in museums or sell to collectors for thousands of dollars.

"I think people should lament the passing of this art form," Lien said.

But while courtroom drawing has a long history - artists did illustrations of the Salem witch trials in 1692 in colonial Massachusetts - the artistry can sometimes be sketchy. A bald lawyer ends up with a full head of hair. A defendant has two left hands. A portly judge is drawn rail-thin.

Subjects often complain as they see the drawings during court recesses, said Chicago artist Carol Renaud.

"They'll say, 'Hey! My nose is too big.' And sometimes they're right," she conceded. "We do the drawings so fast."

Courtroom drawing doesn't attract most aspiring artists because it doesn't afford the luxury of laboring over a work for days until it's just right, said Andy Austin, who has drawn Chicago's biggest trials for over 40 years, including that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

"You have to put your work on the air or in a newspaper whether you like it or not," she said.

The job also involves long stretches of tedium punctuated by bursts of action as a witness sobs or a defendant faints. It can also get downright creepy.

At Gacy's trial, a client asked Austin for an image of him smiling. So, she sought to catch the eye of the man accused of killing 33 people. When she finally did, she beamed. He beamed back.

"The two of us smiled at each other like the two happiest people in the world until the sketch was finished," Austin recalled in her memoirs, titled "Rule 53," after the directive that bars cameras in US courts.

There's no school specifically for courtroom artists. Many slipped or were nudged into it by circumstance.

Renaud drew fashion illustrations for Marshall Field's commercials into the '90s but lost that job when the department store chain started relying on photographers. That led her to courtroom drawing.

Artists sometime get to court early and sketch the empty room. But coming in with a drawing fully finished in advance is seen as unethical.

Some artists use charcoal, water colors or pungent markers, which can leave those sitting nearby queasy. Most start with a quick pencil sketch, then fill it in. Austin draws right off the bat with her color pencils.

"If I overthink it, I get lost," she said. "I have a visceral reaction. I just hope what I feel is conveyed to my pen."

These days, Chukman and Renaud fear for their livelihoods. They make the bulk of their annual income off their court work. Working for a TV station or a newspaper can bring in about US$300 a day. A trial lasting a month can mean a US$6,000 paycheck. Chukman does other work on the side, including drawing caricatures as gifts.

Austin is semiretired and so she says she worries less. She also notes that federal courts - where some of the most notorious trials take place, like the two corruption trials of impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich - seem more adamant about not allowing cameras.

Still, though Rule 53 remains in place, federal courts are experimenting with cameras in very limited cases.

"If federal courts do follow, that will be the end of us," Austin said.

Renaud holds out hope that, even if the worst happens, there will still be demand from lawyers for courtroom drawings they can hang in their offices. Lien plans to bolster his income by launching a website selling work from historic trials he covered, including of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Chukman, a courtroom artist for around 30 years, jokes that if asked for his opinion, he'd have told state-court authorities to keep the ban in place a few more years until he retires.

"I recognize my profession exists simply because of gaps in the law - and I've been grateful for them," he said wistfully. "This line of work has been good to me."


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