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Chicago courtroom sketch artist Lou "L.D." Chukman has drawn some of the biggest names to ever pass through Chicago's unfathomably large court system. He's been working as an artist since 1975, in courtrooms and doing caricatures and commissions.
I met Lou at Bridgeport Coffee Shop in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. When I got there, he was reading Ratter's interview with Jane Rosenberg on his phone. We spoke for a while, so this has been edited for clarity.
RATTER: I was looking at your gallery, and there are some names that popped out to me. Rod Blagojevich, R. Kelly. When you're doing one of those trials, are you notified ahead of time?
L.D.: In those cases, yeah. We knew when the Kelly trial was set, we knew when [Drew] Peterson was set, and I blocked the time out and went. Most of the time, I actually don't know. Yesterday at 6:15 A.M., I got a phone call from my desk and they said, "Can you go to Waukegan at nine?" Waukegan is 45 miles north of here. They wanted me to draw [Joseph] Battaglia, the off-duty policeman who was making threats to the coroner's office. I hadn't read about the case at all. I was out of the house by seven, and I got there twenty after eight, I got cheap Lake County gasoline, and went to court. They called the guy, and I drew him, and got my sketch shot by 10:30. Then I called everyone on the North Side that I could drop in on my way home.
Oprah sketch by L.D. Chukman
RATTER: Why is it so last-minute?
L.D.: A lot of the business is bond hearings. In criminal law, when a guy gets arrested, under state law in Illinois, he has to have a bond hearing with 48 hours. Sometimes, we don't know if something's newsworthy until someone puts out a press release, or it's a particularly heinous crime that people have been covering. In Cook County, at noon every day at 26th & California, there's what's called Branch 66, which is the Class X felony bond hearings. That's been a third of my business for most of my life — the first look at an arrestee. Sometimes, things are on the schedule and they don't know what they're gonna cover, so then they call me. I worked for two weeks on Michael Jordan suing Dominick's, and then I didn't work for three weeks until something came up last Friday. It's freelance life.
The nature of news is fluid. Some things they'll cover, and then after the bond hearing, there's usually a probable cause hearing, or a grand jury hearing, which no one knows about. Sometimes they send me to those. Sometimes they have pre-trial hearings that are interesting, things are likely to come out, so sometimes they get sent to those. Trial usually consists of jury selection, opening statements, the big witness, the dull witnesses, the closing arguments, and then waiting for the verdict. I frequently get sent to opening statements. Hopefully, it's a separate day's work to get the big witness, and then frequently I get sent to closing arguments, waiting for the jury.
Something like Drew Peterson was unusual; we covered it "gavel-to-gavel." Peterson, R. Kelly, Michael Jordan...I covered the opening, covered the close, defendant testifies, things like that. In civil cases, that gets interesting too, because a lot of the arguments have pre-trial hearings, and then they get to trial. Sometimes if something's newsworthy, or they just find out about it — someone sends a tip to the desk, says, "Hey, this might make news." Sometimes I've even picked up things or two.
The tradition is that sketch artists only work for one station. One station hires you, they are your primary client. It was a very well-kept tradition in Chicago. There was an artist for the CBS outlet, the NBC outlet, the ABC outlet, for WGN, and for Fox. Then the NBC artist started undercutting the rest of us to steal our clients, and that's when it turned into a competitive free-for-all. There's a current artist doing that, basically calling our clients behind our backs, and takes them when he can.
RATTER: How long has this been going on?
L.D.: [Since the] Late '80s, early '90s. It was a friendly industry. We all got along, until the NBC artist started doing that. We all get along now, except for that artist who's still doing it.
RATTER: Is the person who started the free-for-all still in the business?
L.D.: She got fired for conflict of interest. She was an awful person. If you got a seat that she wanted, she would deliberately get in your way. She brought competitiveness. One time the Channel 9 artist got a seat that she wanted, and she spent the whole morning digging her spiked heel into the Channel 9 artist's designer purse. Literally put a hole in it, then said, "Oh, some bad accident must have happened!" Most of our conversations about her were speculation as to whether she was a psychopath or a sociopath.
RATTER: Was this to make up for a lack of skill?
L.D.: She certainly lost her skills. Her main skill was salesmanship. She was certainly lousy. Jay Leno made fun of one of her sketches on the air, during the Blagojevich trial, and her channel still wouldn't ditch her. She had to give a gift to Blagojevich at a news conference between the time he became a convicted felon and the time of the second trial. She made an oil painting of him, 'cause she adored him, gave it to a friend. She was a journalist covering a convicted felon!
When people ask me, "How long have you been doing this?" I usually say, "I got here at 10." Then I say, "Well, I started as an illustrator in 1975," and then I say, "My mother tells me I was drawing on the blank pages of her books when I was two, and they couldn't beat it out of me."
RATTER: People ask you this a lot?
L.D.: They do, especially when I work as a caricature artist, people will ask me that. But that's the true answer. My mom says I was drawing on the blank pages of her books when I was two, they couldn't punish me out of it, they couldn't stop me from drawing. Remember carbon paper? The cheapest one was called "Canary Yellow." My dad brought a package of 500 pages of Canary Yellow paper and I used it up in a month.
I worked for two weeks on [a] Michael Jordan [case], then I didn't work for three weeks...it's freelance life.
RATTER: What were you drawing?
L.D.: Trains, cars, wars, airplanes. Stuff out of my head. Comic book stuff. Boy stuff. They let me take Saturday lessons at the Art Institute 'cause they couldn't stop me. When I got to college age, I realized, "Oh! I could go to college at the Art Institute!" My dad had law degrees from two universities in Europe; he was a frustrated lawyer, he never practiced here. He was a real estate broker. He really, really, really wanted me to be a lawyer. It drove him crazy that I was an artist. I couldn't help being an artist! I won't say that I had any talent, but I had the inclination. I really had to train, but my parents let me. I said, "If you don't let me go to the Art Institute, I'll get a degree in German and be really poor." My dad was very worried about me being poverty-stricken, or him having to support me.
They let me go to the Art Institute. I drew from models, six hours a day, three hours a week, my first three years. I practiced. I went to school with people who were naturals, who had innate talent. When you take figure drawing, the first 15 or 20 minutes or half hour are what is called "gesture drawings." They're just like tennis drills. The model moves every seven seconds. You draw them on cheap newsprint, and you throw them away at the end of the day. You start with stick figures, and then as you get more facility of seeing what's there, you start outlines, and eventually you're able to put fingernails and eyeballs in. Fast drawing is the basis of almost all the eye-hand coordination you need for quick sketching.
My second year in school, the senior courtroom artist at Channel 7, a woman named Andy Austin, was taking a refresher course in a class I was in. She came up to me one day and said, "Lou! You draw very well." I said, "Thank you, Andy." She said, "You draw very fast, too." I said, "I'm impatient, Andy." She said, "How would you like to be my summer replacement?" The woman who was usually her summer replacement was a woman who always tried to steal her job every fall when she came back. The replacement had just had a baby, so she was out of the picture for a while, and Andy said to me, "I know that you are a man of your word and you won't try to steal my job in the fall." I said, "Yes, Andy." She said, "I know you have to go back to school in the fall, and you won't be able to try to steal my job." I said, "Yes, Andy."
She suggested some courtrooms to practice drawing, and I went, I took my samples to a man at the ABC outlet out here. He said, "Yeah, good," and then then forty years ago last month, they called me, they said, "Go draw this sentencing." I went and drew the sentencing, and then I had some other business, and then a couple years later, the John Wayne Gacy trial happened at the same time that the firemen went on strike. Andy was at Gacy six days a week, and I was in the civil court with the firemen every day. It became a year-round business, and then during the next round of budget cuts, I became a college financial aid officer until it became a year-round business again. I worked for WGN, I worked for the Fox outlet, 'til what's-her-name stole my work. She would just give drawings away for free, to the Sun-Times, to the Daily Herald. She had a rich husband.
Murder defendant Bryant Brewer, heavily guarded, becomes agitated while testifying in his defense. (By L.D. Chukman)
RATTER: Is there anywhere where courtroom artists are thriving? The industry is doing well?
L.D.: Nah. I don't think so. There are one or two people who are doing really well. There's an artist in Washington, D.C. named Art Lien. Art gets to cover the Supreme Court, but what happened is, almost no one else decided to get a courtroom artist in D.C., and all the courts in D.C. are federal courts, so anything that happens in D.C., he draws it. He has the whole town to himself. He's the one thriving guy. I have to say he deserves it. He's really good. He's one of the best. They sent him here for Blagojevich early on, so I got to see his work close-up in person. It's just astounding. If I had a really good day I could match it, maybe, but he's good at what he does. He seems to be a very professional, nice person. He's the guy who got sent to Boston to draw Tsarnaev, and he was widely criticized for making him look too innocent. It's like, if the cameraman had done that, you'd be screaming about that, too. They don't come in with fangs and blood on them, you know, and their lawyers clean them up. I gotta say, some of the evilest people I've ever seen have been completely if not innocuous, just harmless-looking. I've been at these things where there are three defendants. There's a hulking guy, and there's a junkie-looking guy, and the guy who actually pulled the trigger is just some kid.
RATTER: Is there a kind of case that you won't take?
L.D.: I've never refused a case, but I have refused to make drawings of some evidence. There was a case in Indiana where the guy had kidnapped, raped, murdered someone, and shot slides of her body. They showed those in court, and I told my reporter, "I'm not drawing that." He didn't hear me say that, so he was pissed when I didn't have a drawing of that to cover his tracks. There've been things I've drawn that stations wouldn't broadcast. During Drew Peterson, there were an enormous amount of pictures of the victim's body in the tub. I only drew the ones that didn't show a face or body part, and they still pixelated those. I try to keep within a certain level of taste. I don't believe in necro-porn, you know. But I don't think I've ever refused a job, except maybe to throw money to someone else. Once or twice, someone's said, "You don't have to draw that."
RATTER: Why do you think it's such a specific thing that only a handful of artists can do?
L.D.: You gotta be fast, you gotta be news-alert, to what's important. You have to have an eye for the right moment. The people who do this well are the kind of people who grew up sitting in train stations drawing peoples' portraits all day, stuff like that. People who are used to catching things on the fly. The guy that is my sick day substitute is someone that's been wanting to do it for ten or 20 years. He's a caricature artist who trained as a fine artist. Even he needed a bit of tune-up. I brought him in to practice a couple of days, and he was kind of glitchy. He's picked up. He's actually really quite good on his good days. He had to be taught news sense, where to frame things. People who come and wanted to do this, Andy would fob them off on me. I would say, "No. That's not good enough." They were invariably egomaniacs, most of them were young women who thought much more highly of their work than they should have, which was a shame. I'd say, "No, you gotta tune up." I drew for models 18 hours a week for three years, and even then, I wasn't that good.
RATTER: How do you see the industry doing over the next five years?
L.D.: It's gonna shrink. Almost every state lets cameras in now. It's strictly the federal courts where you gotta get work.
RATTER: Do you think they'll allow cameras in there, too?
L.D.: We're gonna lose the civil cases, for sure. That's case-by-case, though of course, enough lawyers don't like cameras in courtrooms. Particularly defendants don't like it.
RATTER: Do they prefer sketch artists?
L.D.: I think they would prefer nobody, but I think they prefer a sketch artist to a camera and prefer nobody to a sketch artist. As long as I can make a living at it. I do other kinds of illustrations. I'd like more of that, because it's really a sad business. That's the other thing. I know a guy who quit being a courtroom artist because he couldn't stand watching the murder and mayhem anymore. The guy had kids, he really didn't want to go listen to evidence about how they found body parts in the sewer, or this kid was abused to death in someone's household. I don't blame him.
RATTER: Is it emotionally taxing having both your work and what you do creatively be about people who murder, people who rape?
L.D.: If I didn't do it, someone else would do it worse. The worst thing is victim's' families. They're suffering. Defendant's families are suffering, too. "We didn't know little Johnny was gonna turn out that way, we did everything we could to raise him right." It's bad for a lot of people. I wish I could feel for them more, but if I did, I would crack up. On the whole, I have to have the attitude that this is just another face, this is just another paycheck. I have to stop getting angry at people, too. Some attorneys are just bastards. Judges too. I'm a professional, though. The definition of a professional is: you can do it on demand, when people are watching, every time. And you get paid. This was a temporary job when I got it in 1975, I'm grateful and it's allowed me to do the other things that I do. What you lose in security, for having a day job, you gain in freedom. I can avoid rush hour, most of the time. I don't have kids, I don't have a wife, I don't have property, but I gotta say I'm pretty content with what I've got, what I've been able to do, what I've been able to see. I got a great stock of stories to tell people. It's nice proving I can do this. I'd like to do it a little more.
RATTER: Has anyone ever followed up with you to criticize or praise how you've drawn them?
L.D.: I've never gotten a fan letter. Only twice have my masters told me that I did a good job. One time, the desk assignment editor said, "Hey, good job on Ed Genson there, it looks just like him." Then one time my reporter called me up, rather late at night, and said [affecting a cowboy-Western accent], "Man, I just want you to know you did good work. We made those other guys look like shit." I was so stunned, I forgot this was a guy I didn't actually get along with very well. I was so stunned I forgot to thank him. I had to track him down the next day and thank him for saying it.
RATTER: Regarding the recent Tom Brady incident…
L.D.: I would say it would be rare to do a situation like that, 'cause what I would've done is draw him medium-close, then put a lot of heads and bodies around him. I might've done it differently. She might've been ordered to do it the way that she was by her reporter. I personally hate drawing crowd scenes. It's worse than drawing juries. Juries are 12 separate little portraits, they all have to be accurate unless the judge says to obscure their faces. A crowd scene usually means drawing six people accurately and then the tops of the heads. Still, it's really hard work, and the materials come out of my pocket, too. All of us. Sometimes, it's like giving up your blood when you have to draw sixty people and color them.
You know what's hardest to draw? Beautiful people. Reproducing beauty is hard. Beauty is usually based on very fine, careful proportions with no irregularities. There are a couple judges who are just too handsome or too pretty. It's a challenge going in to draw them. It's a challenge to get a good likeness of them. A lot of beautiful people are just bland. That's how I like or dislike people in court, based on how easy they are to draw. [He points to my shirt, which has blue and white stripes.] Don't wear that shirt in court, man, I'll make you ugly. Don't wear plaids, don't wear paisleys. I'll make you fat, I'll make you old, I'll make you ugly. If you wear pinstripes I'm gonna take it out on you.
Auction house owner Steven Mastro pleads guilty to fraud in US district court. (By L.D. Chukman)
RATTER: Just to get a better idea of how exactly the business works, you were on contract?
L.D.: Everything's word-of-mouth. Everything's been word-of-mouth since we started and people were trustworthy. The phone rings, you have an agreed rate, you go. You send them an invoice, and eventually you get paid. The CBS artist, Marcia Danits for a couple years they put her on salary, and any day she wasn't in court, she sat in the office and filed her sketches. She got benefits for a while, but that ended after a year or two. After a while, they ditched her completely and tried to go cover news without a courtroom artist at all. She was the best in town. She was the best who ever worked in this city, and they treated her miserably. I can't find her work online! She drew so well. A little slower than me and that's it, but she never wasted a piece of paper, she never made a mistake. She always had the right spacing, and the right moment. Astounding not just likenesses, but architecture. [He points to an old-fashioned radiator, like the one I had in my room in Newton, Massachusetts when I was a kid, sitting in a corner] You see that radiator over there? She could draw that freehand. She would draw every vertical line parallel, no ruler or nothing. She could draw the slats in the federal courthouse. I looked online, just to show off her work to other people. I actually once bought a piece of hers, just to have it.
RATTER: How often do people ask to buy sketches?
L.D.: Lawyers who win cases wanna have souvenirs for their offices, new judges. There's one federal magistrate that's bought every drawing of him I ever did. That's kind of flattering. I've got thousands of drawings stacked at home. I had to put them in a locker recently, and the stack is to the ceiling. Everything I've done since 1975, minus the originals that I've sold. I'm sure I've got a couple hundred pieces in lawyers' offices, judges' offices. Some judges buy everything, some just want one souvenir. It's nice being in someone's collection. I get called for old cases, 'cause the prosecutors are retiring. Someone called me up and said, "Hi, John Dillon's retiring this year. Do you have anything from the wedding murder case of 2003?" I found one! And then I found a later sketch of him that actually looked like him, and then I sold them both to the party. People have called me for old cases. Somebody's son was working for the Lake County, Indiana prosecutor's office, and his dad was a lawyer in private practice who had formerly been a prosecutor and had prosecuted this case I'd done in 1997. It took me a year to find those sketches, but I was able to sell those to him. We actually had a really nice sit-down talk about the law and crime and everything. That was fortunate.
The way my day usually works is, the phone rings and I go. It's usually Channel 7, they're my main client. "It's this case, this courtroom, this time." I'm familiar with just about every courtroom in Northern Illinois, Northern Indiana. It's very James Bond-y. You put on your shirt and tie, you get your specialist equipment, you put your press ID in your pocket, and you go on a mission!
We all thought R. Kelly was gonna get creamed.
RATTER: I don't want to ask what your specific rate is, but I genuinely have no idea how much a courtroom sketch would go for.
L.D.: Three figures. Not the high three figures. I found out once that a good paralegal makes about half of what I make, but they get paid by the hour. The nice thing about being paid by the day is, the long days make up for the short days. Yesterday, except for the driving, I was done in 40 minutes. That's the same pay as nine hours at the Michael Jordan trial. That's why it's always been a flat day rate. If I could bill variably, I'd bill according to difficulty. You've got about 50 seconds to get a guy in a bond hearing versus all day to draw Michael Jordan. Draw the most videotaped man in the world, good luck. It's a challenge.
RATTER: Has there been a case of yours that's been your favorite to draw?
L.D.: Because I was the number two artist at Channel 7 for so long, I didn't get a lot of famous cases, but I got a lot of interesting cases. There was a guy in the city with a lot of clout, his name was Charlie Swibel. He was both a real estate developer and and the CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority. A lawsuit was filed against him for back taxes. His lawyer showed up in front of a judge named Reginald Holzer at the Daley Center. The three lawyers there were arguing, "Mr. Swibel disagrees that he owes these taxes, but we will put in escrow $350,000" — the amount — "and here are the checks." So I got a sketch of three lawyers in front of Judge Holzer and them handing up these two checks for $350,000. Then Judge Holzer said, "This is Chancery Court, this should actually be argued in law court, so therefore I recuse myself from the case. I hand back these checks." I got the sketch of him handing the $350,000 back, and it was a good drawing. And then he said, on the record, "I will say it felt good, though."
Someone spilled coffee on those sketches after we used them, so I don't have them. But Judge Holzer was one of eight or ten judges that got indicted in what was called Operation Greylord. They were taking bribes. Holzer was the last guy to get convicted. He said, on the record, "It felt good," and the Assistant US Attorney in charge of the case was Scott Turow, who later became a big novelist. He gave one of the best closing arguments I have ever seen. It was just, "YOU TAKE THE OATH! YOU SIT ON THE BENCH! AND THEN YOU SIT AROUND AND SELL YOUR ROBE!" It was astounding, and it creamed him on all charges.
RATTER: I always assumed that court was always exaggerated on TV, and that it would never get that contentious.
L.D.: He was verbally eloquent. I really do think television causes attorneys to over-emote. I think they used to have to be just dramatic enough for the jurors, and now they have to be dramatic enough for both the jurors and the lens. Once you're always on camera, you're always on camera. Some people, especially people who go into law, are reflexively eloquent. Especially in Cook County, lawyers seem to really think that jurors are stupid.
RATTER: Do you agree?
L.D.: I gotta say that there's a certain attitude among state prosecutors, and that's a constant state of outraged righteousness, and then absolute vicious rage when cross-examining defense experts or defendants. I think it's just the culture, particularly at the Cook County state's attorney's office.
RATTER: Can you tell me a little about the R. Kelly case?
L.D.: We all thought R. Kelly was gonna get creamed. Everyone in the press room thought he was gonna get convicted, and everyone on the blogs and social media was sure he was gonna get off, and get got off.
RATTER: Were you in the room when he got the not guilty verdict?
L.D.: Yes, I drew him putting his head down and thanking God for his good luck.
Security was very heavy. The judge was particularly sensitive about decorum, so we the press was under strictures, we couldn't go out and come back in. Stuff that makes our lives miserable and inconvenient. The crowd was the crowd.
We had to sit through that video three times. I wanna tell you, R. Kelly is hung like a horse. Why can't R. Kelly sit at home with some porn like a normal man? He would need three hands. Every man in the courtroom crossed his legs. Another thing, the girl in the video wasn't an amateur. She absorbed every meter of him.
My opinion is, the jury let him off because the victim never testified. This victim was, from the outside, consenting, and this victim didn't look as young as what the claimed age was. And the victim didn't make an outcry. I think that's why they let him off. Another thing was, he was never charged with diddling a minor. He was charged with the production of child pornography, which is actually a heavier sentence. You could kidnap a strange kid off the street and rape them and be sentenced to less than if you videotaped yourself with an allegedly consenting minor. The law was written for profiteers, but they used it on him.
RATTER: It feels like a smaller and more difficult industry that I had anticipated.
L.D.: And it's contracted violently. The state of Illinois is letting cameras in courtroom. They announced they were gonna have a pilot program of cameras in courtrooms at 26th & Cal.
RATTER: What does that mean for you?
L.D.: It means less money, less income, less work. Though, luckily, the pilot program doesn't cover bond hearings, which is nice. It's my favorite place to work, and of course, as soon as I move to the South Side to get close to 26th & California, they let cameras in. The federal criminal courts are still camera-free, which is why my colleagues here, in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, can work, though of course their business has contracted. They're cutting each others' throats as vividly as they can.
Drew Peterson sketch by L.D. Chukman
[Sketches courtesy of L.D. Chukman]