Deborah Marble sketches courtroom scenes in a flash

by: VERN UYETAKE - Deborah Marble shows art she was hired to create during a 2008 federal court hearing involving Tre Arrow, an environmental activist who pleaded guilty to charges of arson.Deborah Marble is known in the art world for her watercolor paintings, which appear at the Portland Art Museum’s 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 aren’t 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 ‘I’d 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 weren’t yet allowed in the state’s courts.

Then the law changed. In Oregon, cameras typically are now only kept out of federal courts.

“There haven’t been a lot of calls for courtroom art since 1991,” Marble said. “Years go by when I don’t have a call — years. But when there is a case, it’s 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.

by: VERN UYETAKE - Deborah Marble shows some of the courtroom art she has produced over the past 26 years. She always brings a kit containing pencils, including colored pencils, a small set of watercolor paints and containers for water as well as illustration board, which is sometimes left over from mats she cuts for her other artwork.

She always makes sure to arrive early.

“I want to have something to say about where I sit, and it’s all first-come, first-served,” Marble said. “They don’t save me a place or anything.”

Working on deadline for the media means working fast. For her depiction of the jury’s verdict in the Mohamud case, she started with the judge and the courtroom’s flag and seal — “it’s nice to put a little context in,” she explained — and then drew the attorneys and defendant. The picture took about seven minutes.

“That’s part of the game; I really enjoy that,” she said. “The idea that you can draw quickly is surprising for most people. I’ve just always thought it was fun.”

The job also demands the ability to sprint downtown at a moment’s notice.

“I’ve rarely had a call more than 24 hours in advance of anything,” Marble said.

Unlike painting someone’s portrait, there isn’t 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 haven’t heard the whole thing,” Marble said. “And you kind of go in knowing what the case is about so it’s not like it’s a big shock.”

by: VERN UYETAKE - Deborah Marble demonstrates watercolor painting last week at Museum 510, a gallery space in downtown Lake Oswego.

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 it’s 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 Portland’s 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 I’d even picked up my pencil, said ‘I’ll 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 I’m the only person in town who’s 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 wouldn’t argue. However, she said, “I will be sad, because I enjoy this a lot. It’s always exciting. They wouldn’t be calling if it weren’t an interesting case.”

Deborah Marble's depiction of the scene when a federal court jury delivered a guilty verdict in the trial of Mohamed Mohamud was a familiar image in the news early this year.

A scene from a hearing involving Ward Weaver III, convicted of murdering two girls in Oregon City. Even after circuit courts started to allow cameras inside, the news media didnt always have time to set them up, leading companies to instead hire artists like Deborah Marble to illustrate scenes.

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