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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Neil Steinberg

‘You catch the moment’

Lead attorney Jennifer Bonjean, right, confers with disgraced singer R. Kelly at his trial in Chicago last week, in a drawing by artist Don Colley. “You try to get a sense of something seeping from them, intelligence,” said Colley, of the challenge of drawing masked participants at a trial. “You try to get emotions.” (Provided artwork.)

A criminal trial brings many people together in one room. It can get crowded and confusing, but there is a clear hierarchy to help make sense of what’s happening.

First is the judge, of course, in this case U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, 85, set off not just by an elevated perch and flowing black robes, but his air of authority.

He’s flanked by a clerk, a ballif, sheriff’s deputies and a court reporter, working that that odd stenotype machine with its 22 flat keys.

There is the defendant who, if you were in Leinenweber’s courtroom last week, was R. Kelly, the singer already sentenced in June in New York to 30 years in prison for sexually abusing young girls. This latest trial, now in its fourth week, it expected to conclude in a few days.

Kelly’s at a table with his attorneys. At the next table is the prosecution. There is the jury in their box, the press in its row, the public filling the rest of the room. Witnesses come and go.

Don Colley (Provided photo)

Then there is Don Colley, 68, bald with a neat beard. He typically holds a Stillman & Birn sketchbook, with grey or tan pages. He gazes at the proceedings, while sketching with colored markers, Pitt Artist Pens, by Faber-Castell. He likes them because they don’t have an odor, like some markers, which can give an artist away. Plus, you don’t have to stop drawing to sharpen them, as with pencils.

You might naturally assume Colley is a courtroom artist — normally, there are two, working for TV stations. But Colley is something rarer than a courtroom artist: an artist in a courtroom.

”It’s a messy trial,” said Colley. “Man, what a collection of remora and hangers-on that make that world so compromised. It’s really messy.”

Colley isn’t working for any media outlet. He isn’t being paid. So why is he there? You have to knock on that door several times for the answer.

”I draw everywhere I go,” he explained. Buses. Trains. “The sketchpad goes out the door with me. Seeing how society works. Catching people at their jobs.”

He draws cops, commuters. Why courtrooms?

”Going to trial has always been just fascinating to me,” he said. “It’s important, one of the three branches of government. There’s funny and interesting things that happen in court. How could you not want to be there?”

Easily. To me, attending trials is like watching movies being filmed. It sounds a lot more fun than it actually is. There is a lot of waiting.

”I celebrate the fact that we’re supposed to be able to do that, to go and watch the proceedings,” he said.

To each his own. I met Colley through a mutual friend, Tony Fitzpatrick, the Chicago artist known for his colorful bird collages and acting in movies and TV shows.

”I’ve known him since 1987,” said Fitzpatrick. “He is a witness. He bears witness to our city and all its folly and all of its vainglory and all of its poetry and beauty. It’s there in the drawings. This is a guy who looks and see a lot.”

”Don is a Chicago character,” agreed Stuart Fullerton, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. “He loves Chicago, is very much into Chicago history, organized crime. He’s come a few times to watch me argue. He likes the setting. He’s very interested in that: crime, law enforcement, trials. I think he’s fantastic.”


”One thing about Don, he’s so quick to get a likeness. Uncannily accurate,” Fullerton said. “That’s very, very, very difficult to do quickly. He’s much better at getting a likeness than many other courtroom illustrators, who settle for an approximation. I’ve been at the U.S. attorney’s office for 27 years now. I’ve seen courtroom artists come and go. Don is better than most of them, by a lot.”

Isn’t getting into a hot ticket like the R. Kelly trial tough to do?

“One of the most important thing to do is go make friends with the guards,” Colley said, noting that a complimentary drawing of a portly deputy in trials past can help get a decent seat.

“The guy at the scanner says, ‘You’re alright, c’mon in.”

Start to draw in the enforced tedium of a courtroom and people start drifting by.

“Everybody comes over, they look at your drawing,” Colley said. “They’ll say, ‘I’m not that fat. I’m not that bald.’ I once had the family come over. They followed me out into the parking lot. I’m thinking, ‘Why are you talking to the sketch artist?”

Good question. I think because artists have a knack; they see the world as it is, and differently, at the same time.

“Are things going to be rectified?” Colley said, of the essence of a trial. “Are errors going to be corrected? It’s a mystery unless you go in and find out what’s going on. I have a subversive nature in me. I like being a sleuth. When I go in there, I make sure I am independent in spirit, independent in mind. Not beholden to anyone except veritas. I want to understand and capture the life drama that takes place in society, haggling how it is going to cooperate.”

Anything he’s noticed about R. Kelly?

“He’s got strong features,” Colley said. ”He’s masked to the max, so it’s very difficult. The challenge is to get a scene. They’re all masked up, but the masks slip. If there’s a moment, you catch the moment. You try to get a sense of something seeping from them. Intelligence. You try to get emotions. Got this quick thing between Jennifer Bonjean and R. Kelly. She turned away. You see her looking at him, her two eyes and glasses, eyebrow up. I grabbed that ... There are too many challenges for it not to be interesting.”

Artist Don Colley catches the sweep of clutter and tedium in a trial, even one as high profile as the one against R. Kelly on a variety of charges related to the sexual abuse of teenage girls. (Provided image.)
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