Art on a deadline
Deborah Marble sketches courtroom scenes in a flash
Deborah Marble is known in the art world for her watercolor paintings, which appear at the Portland Art Museums Rental Sales Gallery and in local shows throughout the year.
She also is one of the relatively few artists who give the public a glimpse of high-profile trials when cameras arent allowed in the courtroom.
Marble practices the slowly dying art of courtroom sketching, compressing the drama of a day in court into a single drawing that captures the emotions and action of a hearing or trial.
A watercolor artist and former physical therapist, Marble has been drawing and painting courtroom scenes for a variety of news organizations for the past 26 years. Her springboard into the career? Jury duty.
I always enjoyed figure drawing, Marble said. I had seen court art even as a child and thought Id love to do that. When I was called to jury duty, I thought my opportunity had arrived having a legitimate reason to be in the courtroom with a pencil and paper in hand.
Marble has lived in the Lake Oswego area for almost four decades. She said she has sketched too many courtroom scenes to count, especially in the early years, when cameras werent yet allowed in the states courts.
Then the law changed. In Oregon, cameras typically are now only kept out of federal courts.
There havent been a lot of calls for courtroom art since 1991, Marble said. Years go by when I dont have a call years. But when there is a case, its a big one.
Marble drew scenes from the trial of Mohamed Mohamud, found guilty this year of plotting to bomb a holiday tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, and hearings involving Reaz Khan, a city of Portland employee accused of conspiring to finance terrorist activity.
She always makes sure to arrive early.
I want to have something to say about where I sit, and its all first-come, first-served, Marble said. They dont save me a place or anything.
Working on deadline for the media means working fast. For her depiction of the jurys verdict in the Mohamud case, she started with the judge and the courtrooms flag and seal its nice to put a little context in, she explained and then drew the attorneys and defendant. The picture took about seven minutes.
Thats part of the game; I really enjoy that, she said. The idea that you can draw quickly is surprising for most people. Ive just always thought it was fun.
Ive rarely had a call more than 24 hours in advance of anything, Marble said.
Unlike painting someones portrait, there isnt time to dwell on the work and polish every detail. And sometimes the job entails listening to some grisly stories.
Marble sketched the trial of Dayton Leroy Rogers, a prolific serial killer now on death row for the murders of six women. He was reported to have a foot fetish and sawed off some victims feet before dumping their bodies in a Molalla forest.
But she remains unfazed.
I try not to have strong opinions, because I know I havent heard the whole thing, Marble said. And you kind of go in knowing what the case is about so its not like its a big shock.
She said the best people to draw have distinguishing features: unusual eyebrows, a strong nose, a moustache or a mess of curly hair those kinds of things that you can hook a pencil on and its instantly recognizable.
Take Bud Clark, the beloved mayor of Portland from 1985 to 1992. She said he was sure fun to draw when he took the witness stand in 1990, after Portlands first woman police chief filed a federal sexual discrimination lawsuit against the city.
Another interesting subject was a New York defense attorney in the case against The Portland Six, an accused terrorist cell after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He had a great profile, lots of curly hair, a ponytail and a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit, Marble said. He was beautiful to draw.
And he was a fan of her work before he even saw it.
He came waltzing up and, before Id even picked up my pencil, said Ill buy it.
But as jobs have thinned, so have the ranks of courtroom artists. On a recent case, Marble struggled to find an alternate artist for broadcasters. They ended up partnering to hire her and shared her finished work.
There were four or five of us who used to do it routinely, Marble said. It seems as if Im the only person in town whos available to do this now.
As states increasingly lift their bans on cameras in courtrooms, it seems only a matter of time before the same happens in federal courts, Marble said.
If that happens, she wouldnt argue. However, she said, I will be sad, because I enjoy this a lot. Its always exciting. They wouldnt be calling if it werent an interesting case.