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Artist draws on court life

Hearings for terrorism suspects revive career of courtroom sketcher

The only regret that Deborah Marble has in her 15-year career as a courtroom sketch artist is that she wasn't home when the call came in to sketch the Unabomber in a federal courtroom in Helena, Mont.

'They realized he was going to be arraigned, and there wasn't anybody who does this in Helena,' she says. 'It's too bad. It would've been fun.'

These days, the 61-year-old Lake Oswego artist isn't lacking in high-profile cases. In past weeks, she has arrived two hours early at federal court in Portland to secure a seat at the detention hearings of October Martinique Lewis, Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, Patrice Lumumba Ford, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal and Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, all arrested by the Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Each day, she grabs her favorite seat in the jury box, the one with the best line of sight to the defendant, and sets up shop: a plastic bowl of water, palette of watercolors, set of brushes and briefcase full of sketch boards.

The arrests have been a welcome call back to the job for Marble, a physical therapist by trade who learned the art of figure painting through workshops and classes during the last 20 to 25 years.

Her 31-year-old daughter, Abigail, is a graphic designer who fell in love with courtroom sketching last fall and also sketches for clients. Sometimes the two work during the same hearing for separate news agencies.

Marble declines to disclose her fee but insists that she doesn't do it for the money.

When she first began 15 years ago, business was booming. Local news stations, which needed something visual for their newscasts, would pay for her on a case-by-case basis to sketch subjects at everything from drug seizure cases to neighborhood disputes.

Then came the Oregon Supreme Court decision in 1989, allowing news cameras into state trial courts.

Her business tapered off, but she enjoyed being called to sketch at big cases such as former Police Chief Penny Harrington's sexual discrimination lawsuit against the city in 1991. The large, bearded face of then-Mayor Bud Clark was one of her favorites to sketch, Marble recalls.

In the past year, newsrooms have sliced their budgets and calls from assignment editors wanting to pay for courtroom sketches have become even less common, Marble says.

'Now it seems like we're having a run,' she says, referring to the recent proceedings in federal court, where cameras are not allowed.

A love of art

Marble's career spawned from a lifelong interest in art, particularly figure drawing. In 1986, she had jury duty and tried her hand at sketching people in court. She shopped her work to local TV stations and was hooked.

While many sketch artists use pastels or markers, both she and her daughter choose to work in watercolors. 'They're speedy, affordable, and I think they're attractive,' Marble says.

With quick strokes, she tries to capture dramatic gestures or facial expressions to make the portraits more interesting. 'You need to be a good observer,' she says, 'and be able to hold a thought in your mind long enough to get it down on paper.'

Many times, she's captivated by the details of the case and follows them through the news, as in the case of the Dayton Leroy Rogers death penalty trial in 1988 in Molalla.

Then again, she says, 'sometimes I just get in there and draw, and I'm not really listening.'

Contact Jennifer Anderson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..