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Artists offer window into courtrooms

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Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 2:13 pm, Thu Jan 23, 2014.

By Audrey Spencer

Killeen Daily Herald

When cameras are sent away, artists will play.

Equipped with colored pencils and sketch pads, courtroom artists are the purveyors of the goings-on at trials where cameras are not allowed.

"With (Maj. Nidal) Hasan, when he showed up in his beard, the only picture of him in the beard before the one in his prison garb were my drawings," said Brigitte Woosley, who fell into courtroom drawing "purely by accident."

While she was a fine arts undergraduate at Trinity University in San Antonio, a local newspaper was in need of artists to cover trials. Woosley said the university was contacted for some of their top art students.

"They got a little van, gathered us up and turned us loose in different courtrooms to draw," she said. "I had no idea what I was doing. I had a sketch pad and my little bottle of ink and a pen."

Woosley remembers people at her first trial, regarding a car accident, looking at her like they didn't know what she was doing there.

"They recessed and I got up and knocked my ink onto the bench," she said. "I thought 'well, this is it.' I kind of slunk home and forgot about it. Two weeks later, the newspaper contacted me and said they liked my artwork best and wanted to hire me."

Woosley's first big case came when she was contracted by a local television station to cover a mass murder trial in Houston.

"It was a ghastly trial," she said. "I sketched that one. Someone else saw my work, someone else hired me and I did the Genene Jones trial."

Big breaks

Other artists stumble into the field by association and luck.

Gary Myrick, who sketched the trials of Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo in Waco, started out as a portrait artist at Six Flags, which taught him how to draw quickly.

"I'd work between the volcano and the gunfight there in grueling conditions sometimes," said Myrick. "At the age of 19, I was hired as an art director at KTVT Channel 11."

The job put Myrick in charge of the on-air "look" of the channel. He moved to KDFW in 1976 to substitute for their art director, and from there was sent to his first trial, the Dallas school segregation case.

Myrick's big break came with the Cullen Davis case in Houston.

Davis, an oil heir, was acquitted of murdering his stepdaughter and estranged wife's boyfriend and hiring a hitman to kill his wife and a judge.

A billionaire at the time, he is the richest man to have stood trial for murder in the country.

The Davis trial led Myrick to develop his signature technique using gray paper, colored pencils and pens.

"Having been an art director at a TV station at age 19, I developed a method that I knew would work well on television," he said. "I am pleased to note that my approach has influenced the work of many others. That is, except when it costs me jobs."

Gray paper, according to Myrick, allows him to draw with lights and darks, which cameras pick up on and slightly exaggerate. The rest of his technique, he said, is designed for speed.

"I bring a tackle box full of colored pencils with gray paper and go to town," said Myrick. "The colored pencils, they're waxy so they don't smear, and I even have taken into account that they're more quiet... I try to be as much of a nonpresence in the courtroom as I can achieve."

Seek accuracy

Courtrooms are not always ideal settings for artists, though.

On covering the Hasan hearings, Woosley specifically recalls the cramped working conditions.

"That is a tiny little courtroom," she said. "I have material I have to carry with me, but I can't spread out and do some of the things I want to. I'm basically working out of my pockets and off my lap."

While both Myrick and Woosley enjoy the travel opportunities provided by their work as courtroom artists, neither take the responsibilities lightly.

Each describes their job as "journalistic" and strive to provide accurate portrayals of courtroom happenings.

"You have to be a bit of a news junkie to enjoy courtroom art," said Woosley. "I worked for 18 months as a news artist for a TV station in Dallas. The news director said 'Do you know why I hired you? You have a nose for news.'"

The ability to focus in on key scenes and faces are what makes courtroom sketches worth anything to news outlets.

"The artist has to be journalistically sensitive and should refrain from exaggerating or editorializing," said Myrick. "There was a courtroom artist one time who drew an American eagle over the jury box. There wasn't one there. That was outrageous."

Draw from life

Besides having an eye for key scenes, courtroom artists must have a basic ability to draw from life, particularly when covering a case featuring celebrities.

"People know what Oprah looks like," said Woosley. "You have to have that accurate drawing."

Being able to capture moments quickly is an advantage when a scheduled trial may be cut 10 minutes in due to a disruption or disagreement.

"I think Six Flags was my art school," said Myrick. "It taught me quick drawing skills."

The work is widespread and sporadic, however, and many artists have other jobs to supplement their courtroom drawing income.

"If I had to rely on it, I'd be kind of broke," said Woosley, who freelances her work throughout the central part of the U.S. and paints at other times.

"I like current events and history, and I'm getting paid to draw. That's pretty cool," she said.

Contact Audrey Spencer at aspencer@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7476.

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