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updated: 9/2/2012 10:10 AM

Courtroom artists' future in peril

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  • Lou 'L.D.' Chukman became a courtroom sketch artist almost by accident 37 years ago. Here is his portrait of Brian Dugan pleading guilty in 2009 to the 1983 murder of Naperville resident Jeanine Nicarico.

      Lou 'L.D.' Chukman became a courtroom sketch artist almost by accident 37 years ago. Here is his portrait of Brian Dugan pleading guilty in 2009 to the 1983 murder of Naperville resident Jeanine Nicarico.
    Lou 'L.D.' Chukman

  • A courtroom sketch by Tom Gianni during the Drew Peterson murder trial showed one of the defendant's lawyers doing online browsing of expensive shoes. "A camera never would have caught that," Gianni said.

      A courtroom sketch by Tom Gianni during the Drew Peterson murder trial showed one of the defendant's lawyers doing online browsing of expensive shoes. "A camera never would have caught that," Gianni said.
    Tom Gianni

 

Tom Gianni will be the first to tell you his profession is old-fashioned, outdated and underappreciated. But he shudders at the thought of giving it up.

A courtroom artist for 30 years, the Chicago man has had a front-row seat for some of the region's most notorious criminal trials -- Drew Peterson, Rod Blagojevich, the Jennifer Hudson family murders, to name a few -- but now cameras are inching their way onto his turf.

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"Obviously I'm not happy about it, but it doesn't surprise me," Gianni said. "Frankly, I'm surprised the 20th Century didn't grab me by the shoulder and say, 'Go back to the 19th Century. We have cameras.'"

Gianni is among a handful of Chicago-area artists who expect to lose a significant chunk of their livelihood as cameras enter DuPage and Cook county trial courts for the first time in state history.

The real loss, however, is the artistic touch that for so many years graced TV screens and newspapers, they say.

"It was always in the back of my mind, this threat to my profession," said Park Ridge artist Marcia Danits, who first covered the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial in 1969. "But I'm just sorry the art is being lost -- and it is a loss. There's very little of it left."

Lou "L.D." Chukman got his start in 1975 when he filled in for a senior staff artist at ABC 7 television. It eventually became a regular freelance gig.

"I fell into it by complete luck," he said. "I had never dreamed of doing this. I just wanted an excuse to draw. It was an extremely fortunate accident."

Chukman and his colleagues say they do their jobs much like any other journalist would: they scribble away for hours with their eyes and ears open, hoping for a glimpse of something deeper in their subjects.

Chukman, of Chicago, said he's done as many as 15 color sketches in one day and on deadline.

"The thing I'm most grateful for is the fact that millions of people have seen drawings, and not necessarily my drawings," he said. "It's sad when people don't look at drawings or art."

Gianni says there's also the fact that cameras don't always catch what an artist does.

For example, he said, one of his pieces from the Peterson murder trial made headlines because it showed one of the defendant's lawyers browsing expensive shoes and dress clothes online during the proceedings.

"A camera never would have caught that," Gianni said. "But it was a real Kodak moment, so I drew it. Everybody flipped."

He's also been chatted up by former Gov. Blagojevich, who Gianni said was particularly interested in his work with nude models. And he once shared a fun moment with Patti Blagojevich, who playfully grabbed his pencil and put horns on one of his throwaway drawings of a prosecutor.

"At one point, she said, 'You're making Rod too thick. Can you thin him up a bit?' Another time, she told me I reminded her of her kids when they're on the floor with a coloring book," Gianni said. "We fascinate people because we're an oddity."

For Danits, the prospect of less work isn't a major blow because she's semiretired and has "just about had my fill of crime and degradation and all that."

Chukman and Gianni, meanwhile, hope to carry on covering federal court, where cameras still are barred, while getting by doing side jobs and their own original artwork.

In that regard, some things never change.

"It's nothing new for an artist to be scraping around and looking for work," Gianni said. "But the wheels of justice grind slowly, so hopefully I'll get a couple more years."

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