In the summer of 1969, Andy Austin, a mother of school-age children and former art school student, was bored of drawing at home, so she began wandering Chicago in search of artistic inspiration. What she found instead was a career.
“There was an important trial coming to Chicago known as the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, and I thought it would be a great place to draw,” says Austin. The trial, which saw the so-called Chicago Eight (later the Chicago Seven) face charges including conspiracy and inciting a riot for their role in demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, would come to be known as one of the defining legal cases of the turbulent ’60s.
For Austin, it was the case that launched her professional life. Upon arriving at the courtroom at the beginning of the trial, the marshal confiscated Austin’s art supplies because she wasn’t a member of the press. During the days following, she snuck them in and spent several weeks battling the crowds to find room to draw. Finally, Austin telegraphed Judge Julius Hoffman to help her get into the press section and, to her surprise, it worked. That was where she overheard an ABC reporter fretting about hiring a new courtroom sketch artist to cover the case. Austin seized the opportunity to show him her artwork and was hired on the spot. “It was pretty terrifying. I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “That’s how I started.”
A few weeks later, Austin’s sketch of a bound and gagged Bobby Seale, one of the defendants in the trial, was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in newspapers across the country, including The New York Times. The drawing launched her career as one of Chicago’s preeminent courtroom sketch artists.
For 43 years, Austin had a frontrow seat to some of the city’s most important courtroom proceedings, including those of Governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, mobster Joey the Clown, the notorious drug-trafficking El-Rukns gang, and even Michael Jackson. The result? Over 3,000 watercolor sketches depicting Chicago’s — and the country’s — history through the inner workings of its legal system.
The impressive collection has found a new home in the Pritzker Legal Research Center, where it will be preserved for future generations of scholars. “The Andy Austin Collection visually represents some of the most important moments in Chicago legal history,” says George H. Pike, Director of the Pritzker Legal Research Center. “As courtroom sketches, they represent a valuable and otherwise unavailable snapshot into the courtroom process and the lives that become entwined with those processes in a way that files and transcripts can’t convey.”
“It’s amazing what the court cases show about a city’s life and history. Since I had this material, I felt like it would be wonderful if it were preserved, catalogued, organized, and able to tell a story of what was going on for those 43 years,” Austin says of her decision to donate her life’s work. “The courts changed and the reporting changed too.”
The sketches trace the social, political, and technological changes that shaped the city. Austin recorded the struggles of the civil rights movement, the rise and fall of the Chicago Outfit, the flourishing drug trade in poor neighborhoods, the concerns over terrorism after 9/11, and even the appearance of new crimes like cyber fraud. In tandem, her profession evolved from one that used film and catered to the local evening news to today’s digital world and the relentless 24-hour news cycle.
Some things, however, remain the same. “Chicago politics has certainly been eventful,” Austin says of the countless public officials who have been memorialized by her black marker. It’s the complexity of human nature, though, that sticks out most in her memory.
“What surprised me was how I could often like or at least understand some really awful people. I found that there’s some pretty horrible people who, in other parts of their lives, were really good guys. They took care of the sick, of widows, paid people’s bills. People are so much more complicated than most of us realize. Human nature is far more varied and interesting than I would have thought.”
What follows is a selection of Austin’s sketches from some of the city’s most iconic courtroom proceedings
Chicago Conspiracy Trial, 1969
Blackstone Rangers Trial, 1971 and Jeff Fort Terrorism Trial, 1987
Jeff Fort Drug-Trafficking Trial, 1983
John Wayne Gacy Trial, 1980
Plagiarism and Copyright Lawsuit Against Michael Jackson, 1984