By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor
A Hyde Park resident since 1994, Andy Austin is well-known among some in the neighborhood for her involvement with the University of Chicago “Revels,” a yearly comedic play incorporating the area’s historical events and figures.
More remarkable, however, is the story of Austin’s 44-year career as a freelance courtroom sketch artist for ABC’s national news bureau and its Chicago affiliate, WLS-TV. Through the years, she drew proceedings including the trials of ex-Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, murderer John Wayne Gacy and many more.
Austin says that to be a writer was her “childhood ambition” and that she drew “no more than other kids — and not particularly well.”
Yet her life path, as a young adult, planted her firmly in Chicago’s courtrooms, where she witnessed the city’s history firsthand and illustrated its stories for countless others.
Austin, who grew up in Florida, Boston and Maine, left for Europe after graduating from Vassar College in 1957. Austin had been accepted to The University of California in Berkeley, where she would have studied Latin America. Yet she wished to stay abroad, and so decided on studying art at Florence’s Accademia delle Belle Arti.
Though she says she had never taken an art class in college, while in Italy, she copied illustrations, and “I really thought I began to like drawing.”
After a year abroad, she attended The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. Following marriage and moves to Washington, D.C., and Vienna, Austin came to Chicago in 1963 with her family. Here she would draw protests and courtroom trials of her own volition: “I was just exploring, you know.”
While Austin’s two children were away at school, and her husband at work, “I had free time during the day and I was trying to find a career for myself,” she said.
“I wanted to be out there where stuff was happening. And so I would go to protests and sit-ins and court, and hoping that I would sell my stuff, freelance, or just not really knowing what it would turn into,” she said.
Austin’s big break, which she described as a “fluke,” came in October 1969, while she was at a proceeding from the Chicago Seven trial.
“I was there drawing, and I overheard a reporter saying he needed an artist the next day,” she said, adding that she approached him and was hired soon thereafter.
Austin’s line of work, which she had not expected to enter, appealed to her, she says, because of “the stories you hear. And being in the thick of what’s going on in the city, if not the country.”
Though Austin only professionally drew courtroom cases and, with one exception, in Chicago – because she didn’t want to work outside of the city – what happened here could garner widespread, even worldwide attention.
As a freelance courtroom artist for ABC’s national bureau, one of Austin’s early, widely syndicated drawings was one of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale being bound and gagged, which she says “was shown all over the world.”
“I actually had just left the courtroom, when this happened,” Austin said, laughing. According to her, she was contacted by a reporter via phone, who “talked me through the sketch” because it “had to get it on the air immediately.” Austin would regularly leave work in the afternoon so that ABC could make deadline, she said.
In the years that followed the trial, Austin’s subjects read like a Chicago rap sheet, including some of the most high-profile, notorious public figures to grace the city: mobsters Joey the Clown and Rocco Infelise; Teamsters leader Alan Dorfman; Jesse Jackson’s half-brother, Noah Robinson; Illinois’ two ex-governors; and of course, rapist and serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Austin’s enthusiasm for her work is evident as she discusses some of these cases. But it’s only natural, according to her: “You have to have a certain love of excitement,” she says, adding that “there’s a certain thrill in hearing bad, horrible things, I think, up to a point.”
Yet the things Austin heard did not always concern death or corruption.
Austin says that “almost anything that goes on in contemporary life, or in the city, anyway, ends up in court,” citing snowstorms, bankruptcies and issues with the city’s roads. “Everything. Everything goes to court,” she said.
Austin expressed particular fascination with bankruptcy cases, describing her experiences witnessing Midway and United Airlines’ cases, which both took place in the early naughts.
“A murder, the guy’s dead. It’s sort of over and done with. But these are people’s lives, their livelihoods, whether they’re going to feed their families, plus their social connections,” Austin said. “[In] both Midway and United, I was seeing grown people cry because of what they were going to lose and how much they cared about something.”
And sometimes, according to Austin, witnessing a court case could affect her personally.
“Anything to do with children is really upsetting. I hate juvenile court,” she said. “You just have a couple of glasses of white wine and then try to forget about it.”
Austin, who calls the American presumption of innocence “a beautiful idea,” says one of the worst things that happens in court is when an innocent person is declared guilty.
“I mean, that is just horrifying. I don’t think anything upsets me more than that, in a way,” Austin said.
Having seen so many Chicago cases up close, Austin has had a unique vantage point from which to personally witness a diversity of defendants, judges and politicians, both guilty and innocent.
Yet Austin has come to the same conclusion about the city that many outside of court have: “Well, it’s very corrupt,” she said, laughing. “I guess that’s not news [to] anybody.”
“You sort of feel that there’s bad stuff going on all around you. On the other hand, in a funny kind of way, you also notice there are a whole lot of people that don’t get in trouble, that aren’t corrupt, there are good judges, there are good politicians.”
Austin’s work has also challenged her views of defendants – sometimes in a surprising way. Austin says that she has seen people who she thought were guilty who turned out to be innocent and that even those she calls “horrible” could have a “good side.”
“Well of course, John Gacy killed over 33 we know of. But even Gacy, his ex-wife who testified about him, she really loved him and she still felt something for him. A bad person can have good parts to him. People [are] really complicated,” Austin said.
Because she retired last year, just shy of spending half a century in courtrooms, Austin has had an opportunity to see the city’s trials change in a way few others have.
“There’s more security than there used to be; it’s harder to get a seat; there’s a kind of a paranoia that we didn’t feel before 9/11,” she said.
Another change, though it hasn’t yet made its way into the city, is the growing use of cameras in courtrooms. Several states, such as Florida, already permit them and, according to the Chicago Tribune, 24 Illinois counties are using cameras in courtrooms in the wake of a 2012 Illinois Supreme Court decision allowing them.
Austin still maintains there’s a value to courtroom drawings.
She says that, “the human eye, the human hand, dealing with a human subject for viewing by humans is of a different level than anything a camera can do. I don’t know why they want cameras so badly.”